Why There Are No Negative Emotions
How often have you been warned of the dangers of “negative” emotions? Whether from psychologists or New Age gurus, that phrase is repeated so often that I wouldn’t blame you at all if you took it as gospel. I used to feel that way!
But what if the truth was radically different? What if all emotions serve a vital purpose? What if every one of them is an intrinsic part of your innate emotional wisdom?
In my exploration of emotions, and after studying the current research on the subject, I’ve come to a startling realization.
Whether or not you accept all of your emotions as valid - and are willing to feel them - is the single biggest decision that will make or break your psychological health.
A big claim? Most definitely, but I wouldn’t say it if I didn’t have good reasons for it. Here they are.
Our emotions connect us to our Authenticity.
Our emotions are essential for us to be able to navigate our daily environment, and to follow the path of our soul.
Without them we wouldn’t be able to connect to our true passions, to know what we truly need and desire… and find the motivation to move in that direction.
Our intuition and instincts are informed by our full range of emotions, including the heavy and unpleasant ones. Shutting down any of our emotions diminishes our connection to our innate wisdom.
This is why accepting all of our emotions as valid and valuable is so important. It’s worth saying again: the quickest way to block our ability to access our emotional wisdom is to consider half of our emotions as “negative” and something to avoid or change.
In order for our emotions to be helpful to us, we must engage with what we are truly feeling, not what we would rather be feeling.
All emotions give us valuable information, and trying to simply clear away problematic emotions equates to denying the wisdom of our emotional body.
If we engage with what we authentically feel, our emotions will guide us toward what is right and true for us… and I feel this is what being authentic is all about.
But if you’re not particularly concerned with authenticity, here’s why this is also important for our psychological health.
Exiling one emotion causes others to go haywire.
When we allow ourselves to authentically feel our emotions, receive the message they are trying to give us, and take the actions that they are telling us are needed, then our emotions will naturally move on until they are needed again. This is how the emotions are wired to work.
Hold on a minute! You may be thinking of those particular emotions that you feel all the time, that just don’t seem to ever go away. Those emotions sure aren’t moving on!
Here’s why that happens.
When certain emotions aren't allowed to do their job, the need - the reason why they arose in the first place - still remains.
So what happens when the right emotion for the job isn’t allowed in? Other emotions will step up in its place, but they won’t be able to meet the need because they weren’t designed for it.
This means that when certain emotions are exiled from our psyche, other emotions get louder and louder - not out of a desire to be a pain in the neck, but in a valiant and futile attempt to help us.
This results in cycling emotions and stuck emotional patterns, that don't resolve even when we do all the right things. As long as the emotion that is truly needed remains exiled, the cycling will continue.
And there is an even more important reason to pay attention to all of our emotions.
Our emotions keep us safe.
The idea that emotions like fear, anger, and shame are harmful and should be avoided, not only sets people up for serious psychological blocks and dysfunction, but in fact puts people in danger.
To illustrate this, let’s look at a couple of specific emotions.
Our fear is intrinsically tied to our instinct for safety, and even running in the background it keeps us alert and aware of our surroundings. Fear is what makes us safe drivers!
People who have rejected their fear, whether consciously or not, lose their ability to discern danger, causing them to trust the wrong people and end up in all kinds of unsafe situations.
Anger is another emotion that keeps us safe, just in a different way.
People whose anger is off-line, perhaps due to childhood messages that expressing anger in any form is unsafe and not allowed, lose their ability to set healthy boundaries and stand up for themselves.
Imagine being on a date and going to your date’s apartment to watch a movie, but then they pressure you for an intimate encounter. Imagine that they aren't respecting your "no", and start physically moving in on you. Wouldn't you feel a certain amount of anger in that situation?
I know I would! And that anger is precisely what I would need to vigorously and effectively defend my honor.
Now imagine that you can't allow yourself to feel anger, because you’ve internalized the message that anger is bad and you must always be polite. How well do you think you'd be able to stand up for yourself in this situation?
Yikes, right? And that’s not all.
Our emotions help us navigate our world.
Humans are social creatures. We’ve been so successful as a species because of our ability to cooperate with each other, in vast and complex ways.
Emotions give us our ability to relate with each other, and are a massive part of our social intelligence. This is not just borne out by psychological studies, but also by research on animals.
As primatologist Frans de Waal says, we can’t “understand animal behavior without emotions, because emotions are the principles behind behavior.”
Our emotions have evolved as an intrinsic part of our biology, which is why many other animals exhibit the same emotions we do. They evolved as survival strategies long before we ever became humans.
So when we lose the ability to feel our emotions, we lose our ability to function in the world.
Neuroscientist Antonio Damasio’s research shows how emotions play a vital role in social cognition and decision-making. In his book Looking for Spinoza: Joy, Sorrow, and the Feeling Brain, he talks about one of his research subjects, a young woman who suffered a head trauma in early childhood that blocked her ability to feel shame, guilt, or embarrassment.
Sounds like a nice condition to have, wouldn't it? Unfortunately her story does not have a happy ending.
Because of her inability to feel shame, this young woman was insensitive, unreliable, disruptive, and a danger to herself and others. She was intelligent, came from a good family, and had plenty of therapy and support - but she still couldn’t function socially, empathize with others, hold a job, or live independently.
Surprised? This makes sense if you consider that healthy shame is what gives us the ability to understand the impact of our actions on other people, and to moderate our behavior accordingly.
Can you imagine a world without healthy shame, where no one was able to admit their mistakes and say “I’m sorry?”
We need to say goodbye to the idea of “negative” emotions.
Whether the emotion-shaming messages come from Christianity, Buddhism, New Age spiritual teachers, or our family of origin, they cause the same damage.
It is even worse when these messages come from people in the personal-growth or healing professions, whose stated goal is helping people overcome their blocks and problematic patterns.
Not only do emotional healing methods and guidance based on this "positive" and "negative" valencing not work very well (and sometimes cause more problems than they solve), often the client will come away from the experience feeling like it is their own fault when their problems don't actually resolve.
I believe this is tragic, and so unnecessary. I know from experience that it is far easier to change our inner emotional dynamic by working with our emotions instead of against them.
If you would like to know how to do this, you’re in the right place. In future articles I will share specific tips and how-tos for working with misbehaving emotions, and give an in-depth look at what each emotion does and why they can go haywire.
To avoid missing out on any of this, you can click on this link to sign up for my weekly newsletter. You will also receive a free guide to Unlocking Your Emotional Genius, which will show you how to: identify your current emotional strengths and challenges, discover the true purpose of each of the 17 emotions, and learn the 5 key skills for intelligently working with your emotions.
And I would love to hear how what I’ve said here resonates with your experience with your own emotions. Please add your comments to the end of this post, and share if you feel it would be helpful to people you know.
Here’s to you and your inner emotional genius!
Cashin-Garbutt, April D. “Animal emotions and empathy.” blogs.ucl.ac.uk, 5 December 2017.
Damasio, Antonio. Looking for Spinoza: Joy, Sorrow, and the Feeling Brain. Harcourt, 2003.