What If I Told You Negative Emotions Are A Good Thing?
As Gloria Loring once sang in the theme song for the hit TV show The Facts of Life,
"You take the good, you take the bad,
You take them both and there you have
The facts of life"
Something you have probably noticed, as you make your way through life, is the ever-present background hum of emotion that shapes your experiences. Emotions are like the color of a still life's underpainting; the color that is used affects the tone of the final painting. For a perfect example, look to a comparison done by artist Tim Ellmers.
Blue underpainting Violet underpainting
Images sourced from https://www.timellmers.com/post/the-pear-underpainting-experiment
The tone is different, but both are beautiful.
Fact of Life #1: People can feel positive and negative emotions and it is normal to feel BOTH.
Emotions ebb and flow. Sometimes we feel the positive (i.e. happy, excited, and content); sometimes we feel the negative (i.e. sad, anxious, angry). While it is still up for debate why humans developed the capacity to feel emotions, the fact is we have them. It is normal to want to cling to the positive, but avoiding the negative like the plague might eventually land you in therapy. By pushing negative emotions away, you are doing yourself a disservice. Not only are you denying yourself half of the human emotional experience, but you may be setting yourself up for failure.
Fact of Life #2: Emotions are temporary.
Accepting positive emotions is an easy task. After all, who wouldn't want to bask in the warmth of joy, love, and happiness? But what happens when we become too attached to these feelings? Unrealistic expectations are preconceived disappointments. Emotions are fleeting and by clinging too much to something that will inevitably fade away, you have set yourself up for unnecessary disappointment. By acknowledging the temporary state of emotions, it is easier to let go of those positive emotions when they are gone. This characteristic becomes a good thing when it is negative emotions that we are caught up in.
Negative emotions are inherently distressing and uncomfortable, but they won't last forever. There is a light at the end of the tunnel, provided you actually go through the tunnel at all.
Fact of Life #3: Bottling up your emotions does NOT make them go away.
When it comes to negative emotions, the only way forward is through. This can be quite a daunting task, so it is very easy to simply choose not to go through the tunnel at all. This is where the avoidance behaviors begin and a common example of this is substance abuse.
People use psychoactive substances (i.e. alcohol, caffeine, illicit drugs, etc.) because it makes them feel good. However, these substances also provide an easy escape route from negative emotions because they are mood altering. Avoiding a negative emotion is not the same as processing the emotion and when that emotion comes back, and it WILL, it won't be any easier to deal with.
Adopting an "out of sight, out of mind" mindset can provide a false sense of security; they have a funny way of bubbling up to the surface in unpleasant ways. The unexpressed anger towards your boss may make you more irritable, thus more prone to lashing out at others. A fear of public speaking may prevent you from raising your hand during class.
So, you are standing before the entrance to the tunnel of negative emotions. There is a light at the end of it, but the tunnel is very dark. You could turn back, but the only way to the other side (i.e. personal growth, maturity, wisdom) is to step into the dark tunnel. Whether you make it there depends on what you choose to focus on. Rather than dwelling on what you can't see if the darkness, you focus on what you can hear. Rather than fixating on the tunnel itself, you focus on the light at the end of it. Rather than despairing over the fact that you are in the tunnel, you focus on taking one step at a time. You'll be at the end of the tunnel before you know it.
Fact of Life #4: Negative emotions are a good thing.
Remember what I said earlier about the two paintings? Both are beautiful.
If we want to experience things like love, acceptance, confidence, and patience, we have to accept their counterparts; loss, rejection, fear, and frustration. To love another person means we will feel loss when that person is gone. To put ourselves out to the world and ask for acceptance means the possibility of being rejected. To gain confidence, we must first be in a state where we feel unconfident or fearful. To have patience means eventually finding the limit between it and frustration. Regardless of the dynamic, many positive emotions come with a negative one. We can't have one without the other.
Does that make seeking out the positive no longer worth it? No! If all we had were positive emotions, would we still call them positive if there were no negative emotions to compare them to? Probably not. The negative emotions help us to recognize and truly appreciate the positive.
Negative emotions also serve as some of our greatest teachers. The guilt you feel when you say something mean to a friend teaches you to not treat your friends that way. The shame of failing an exam can be motivating to study harder.
What if we had the same acceptance for our negative emotions as with the positive ones? More simply, what if we didn't treat negative emotions like they are inherently bad? It might make the tunnel less intimidating to step through.