What is Positive about Negative Emotions?

Illustration Credits: Graphic by Eva McCord ’21

By Wasim Kakroo

FROM homes to schools to workplaces, we are taught that everyday negative feelings and experiences such as fear of failure or sadness about daily life events, should be treated or removed. It is communicated that it is not good to be unhappy.

I don’t think that radical hedonism or removing bad feelings is the way to a good life. I want to make it clear that I’m not referring to medical conditions like clinical depression, anxiety, or trauma. I’m referring to the sadness and misfortunes that come with living a daily normal life.

People are facing more than just normal unpleasant sensations right now, since the world is still trying to recover from the COVID pandemic. Many people have lost their careers and loved ones as a result of this once-in-a-lifetime tragedy. Even for those of us who haven’t faced any major incident, the pandemic has been a particularly trying time in our lives. However, during these times, we have an opportunity here to evaluate the benefits of bad feelings and experiences—and how we may use them for personal growth rather than trying to get rid of them.

Let’s start with a rather apparent point: negative emotions are there to keep us safe. Sadness, anger, fear, and contempt are the primary negative emotions. We feel them automatically in reaction to negative events. You don’t think to yourself, “Hey, I think I’ll feel afraid now,” you just experience fear and react with fight or flight response, which can save your life. Similarly, another emotion, disgust that we feel when we see something dirty, alerts us automatically to potential infections. Shame and guilt in moderation, urge us to do the right thing and correct our wrongs. Certainly, your brain might be hyperactive—you can have a difficulty with anger management or be overly fearful—but the larger point is that, while such emotions are unpleasant, however, they are very important for us to feel. We would not be where we are as a species if these emotions did not exist. All of these emotions are something to which we must be sensitive in order to survive and flourish. While they may appear to be negative, they all have a positive intention, a cause for existence.

Negative emotions might help us be more efficient and effective in our daily activities. The evolutionary psychologists Paul W. Andrews and J. Anderson Thomson claimed in an influential 2009 article in the journal Psychological Review that sadness—and even depression—have continued to be there and have not been eliminated by evolutionary pressures because they provide cognitive benefits. Research has shown that sadness appears to improve our ability to assess reality in social contexts. Sadness can even help us be more effective at work by improving our focus and helping us to learn from our mistakes. This is how failure, and the negative emotions that arise from it, can pave the way for eventual success.

Many of life’s most meaningful experiences are rather painful. To build meaning in our lives, we must open ourselves up for experiencing hurt; disappointments and rejections, at times even from our loved ones. Those who keep themselves guarded from experiencing negative emotions cannot experience life at a deeper level. They may live their whole level avoiding situations and experiences that are negative because they try not to experience negative emotions but as I said, we build true meaning of our life only when we open ourselves up for the whole range of emotions, including negative emotions as well.

Finally, experiencing negative emotions strengthens us in the event of a serious crisis. According to research, “stress inoculation training,” in which people learn to cope with anger, fear, and anxiety by being exposed to stimuli that produce these emotions, is beneficial in developing emotional resilience. It’s easy to envision that attempting to eliminate terrible feelings from daily life could result in a kind of “emotional allergy”—that when difficult times arrive and someone experiences grief or fear that can’t be ignored, that person won’t have the tools to deal with these feelings.

Now let us now focus on more difficult emotion such as depression and anxiety that may definitely impair a person’s life. When we are out of sync with our natural and optimal way of being, we experience negative emotions as warning signs that we are on the wrong path as if they are there to tell us, “Hey, listen up, something isn’t right here, you’re getting off track,”.

‘Milder’ Frustration, apprehension, or irritability can all be early warning signs that something isn’t working for you. If you leave those alone for a long enough period of time, they will begin to become louder. Perhaps you’ll develop feelings of anger, resentment or fear. If you leave such feelings unattended for too long, they will become out of control, causing you to experience, rage, anxiety, and depression.

Most of the times my client’s come to visit me with the whole aim of “eliminating such negative emotions” such as anxiety and depression. I give them a non judgmental space wherein I encourage them to express their opinion about such emotions so that they feel less burdened by them. However, as the sessions progress, I tell them that if they keep working on understanding their emotions and the source of their severity, a time will come when they may thank God for making them experience such emotions in their life because had they not felt such emotions, they would have never felt a need to visit a therapist and hence would never have had an opportunity to revisit their attitude and restructure their way of thinking and hence correct their way of living. Without tasting many of such emotions they would have lived their whole life sub-optimally while maintaining the status quo. Many of such clients eventually come to realize that God’s plan of setting them right by making them experience emotions such as depression and anxiety was in their favor. Such emotions helped them to understand life at a deeper level by having a healthier perspective about relationship with self and others.

To summarize, if we desire a life full of deep meaning, true love, and emotional vigor, we must accept the danger (and, in many cases, the reality) of discomfort, conflict, and loss. This implies that there will be feelings of sadness, fear, anxiety, depression and disgust; however, we will be poorer and weaker if we eliminate bad feelings and events from our lives and try to experience only positive emotions.

  • The author is a licensed clinical psychologist (alumni of Govt. Medical College Srinagar) at Kashmir Life Line, a free mental health counseling service. Author can be reached at [email protected]

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