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Last Updated on April 9, 2020

Why Negative Emotions Aren’t That Bad (And How to Handle Them)

Why Negative Emotions Aren’t That Bad (And How to Handle Them)

I have always had an adverse reaction to negative emotions. I never liked feeling sad, mad or scared. I prefer things to be positive and cheerful – some would say rainbows and sunshine. A lot of this has to do with my upbringing; I grew up in a family who focused on being positive, encouraging and optimistic.

When I was upset, I looked at the bright side. When I was scared, I pushed through it. When I was sad, I got over it. It’s not that I’ve had an easy life, devoid of heartbreak, grief and challenges. I’ve had plenty of those. It’s just that I never decided to focus on that side of things. I thought it was all good. Until it wasn’t.

Several years ago, I found myself facing anxiety for the first time. And not just a little anxiety. We’re talking paralyzing, full-on panic that I had no control over. At one point, I didn’t want my husband to leave for work in the morning. If you’ve ever suffered from anxiety, you know how hard this can be. As someone who has always been adventurous, rarely felt the full force of fear and wired for positivity, this was NOT me and I had no idea what to do.

What I learned (that I have always known, but maybe never fully understood) as I worked through that anxiety, was that it was a symptom. A symptom that something wasn’t working in my life. It was nature’s way of telling me I was off track. There was too much on my plate, I wasn’t taking great care of myself and I needed to slow down.

I may not have slowed down if I wasn’t hit by this spiritual 2×4 of negative feelings. I may have been able to push through many of the ‘negative’ emotions in my life, but some of them were really just pushed down.

I’ve come to learn that negative emotions are neither good nor bad. They are not actually negative; they just feel that way. They are part of life, of being human.

We need to provide space to allow that life is going to be difficult, challenging and incredibly hard sometimes, which leads to uncomfortable or negative emotions. We need to learn to acknowledge, embrace and understand what those emotions are trying to tell us. We need to learn the power and value of these emotions.

Before we dive into this further, I want to make sure you know I am not a therapist or psychologist. These are my experiences of negative emotions for myself, hundreds of people I’ve worked with, and from research and learnings I’ve had over the years. I want to honor and not underestimate the complexity of human emotions. They have been studied by philosophers, psychologists and scientists for thousands of years – each with their own and often competing theories.

With that said, let’s take a look some negative emotions, why they aren’t so negative after all and how to embrace them to live a more fulfilled life.

What Are Negative Emotions?

Negative emotions are any emotions that cause you to feel badly in one way or another. Anger, fear, sadness, despair, frustration, guilt, shame, disgust, disappointment…You name it. We all feel these emotions. Whether you acknowledge them or not, they are there.

In the 1970’s, psychologist Paul Eckman (best known for studying facial expressions and how they relate to emotions) identified six basic emotions: happiness, sadness, disgust, fear, surprise and anger. Interesting that four out of six of these fall into the ‘negative’ category.

In 1980, Psychologist Robert Plutchik identified eight basic emotions: joy, sadness, trust, disgust, fear, anger, anticipation and surprise. Again, four of these eight might be considered negative.

They both went on to expand the range of emotions to include many others. Dr. Plutchik expanded his findings through the wheel of emotions (below) to illustrate the spectrum, degrees and relationships among these emotions.

    If you Google it, you could find a list of the top 10, top 20 and more emotions, but for the sake of our sanity, we can start with these.

    Why Negative Emotions Aren’t All That Negative

    While negative emotions may feel bad, they’re not so bad for us after all. Here are seven reasons why negative emotions aren’t all that bad.

      1. They’re Normal.

      We are going to start here, because, somewhere along the way, experiencing negative emotions became a bad thing. In a world where we are encouraged to be present, grateful and happy (which I agree with as well), perhaps we are doing ourselves a disservice by not talking about the fact that negative emotions are a natural and unavoidable part of life.

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      This leads us to feel even worse when we do feel them. Experiencing different ‘moods’ is all part of being human.[1]

      It’s time to re-assess the role of bad moods in our lives. We should recognize they are a normal and even useful and adaptive part of being human; they help us cope with many everyday situations and challenges.

      2. They Serve a Purpose and Have a Positive Intention.

      If you research the underlying purpose behind negative emotions, they all have one thing in common:

      They have served an evolutionary purpose for our survival, health or well-being.

      For example, fear is our signal that something is wrong and protects us from danger and allows us to survive. Sadness enhances feelings of connection and empathy and builds community. Disgust provides an adverse reaction and steers us away from things that could cause harm or be contagious. Shame and guilt urge us to do the right thing and correct our wrongs. Anger is a protection mechanism that inspires action and causes us to do something to change a situation.[2]

        Surely, without these emotions, we would not be where we are as a species. All these emotions are things we need to feel attuned to help us survive and grow. While they may feel negative, they all have an underlying, positive intention, a reason for being. We need to seek to identify what that positive intention is.

        In addition, our negative emotions prompt us to grow. To be better partners, better friends. To grow, progress. They make us better people and drive change in our lives.

        3. They’re a Warning Signal.

        They identify something that’s going on — our true self, our inner nature and natural state is one of peace, calm and connection.

        However, when we’re out of alignment with our natural and best way, we experience negative emotions as signals that we’re off track. They are telling us, “Hey, listen up, somethings not right here, you’re going off track”.

        ‘Milder’ negative emotions such as frustration, apprehension or annoyance can be early warning signals that something’s not working for you. Leave those alone long enough and they’ll start to get louder. Perhaps you’ll start to feel anger, resentment or fear. Leave those alone too long and they’re out of control – you may experience rage, loathing, anxiety, depression.

        I always liken this to a toddler who needs your attention. They’ll tug on your leg quietly seeking your attention. If you ignore them or don’t pay attention, they start to whine. Ignore them further, or push their needs to the side, you’ll start to get screaming, crying and eventually a full-on temper tantrum.

        The fear and anxiety I experienced was a (late) warning signal that the path I was on was unsustainable, even if my conscious mind thought I was all ‘all good’. I was way off track and needed to slow down.

        Some negative emotions aren’t signs we are off track or out of alignment, but signs we are doing the wrong thing. Think about when you feel shame or guilt. These are signals that you’re doing the ‘wrong thing’ or something out of integrity. A few weeks ago, my 7-year-old daughter came home saying she felt ashamed of something. That was a strong word to use and my first reaction was to comfort her to remove that awful feeling.

        But then I asked her why. As she explained what happened, I realized that what she was feeling was quite healthy. The guilt was telling her she was doing the wrong thing – in this case, it was a self-correcting mechanism. Our discussion became less about absolving the bad feeling and more about learning from her mistakes and doing the ‘right thing’ next time.

        4. They Inspire Action.

        They are a catalyst for change and movement. What happens when you get really mad? You take action.

        Maybe you get passed up for the latest promotion. You’re mad. You felt you deserved it and you’re angry you didn’t get it. That anger prompts you to talk to your boss (in a courteous and professional way, of course) about your skills, accomplishments, successes so she can see your point of view and doesn’t pass you by next time.

        Perhaps you wouldn’t have spoken up so clearly if you weren’t angry?

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        Anger has been used throughout history as a positive catalyst for change. Many great leaders have harnessed their anger to stand up for what they believe in and to demand justice and change. Martin Luther King Jr. said,

        “The supreme task is to organize and unite people so that their anger becomes a transforming force.”

        Our anger can be a transforming force for good on a small, person scale (as in the case above) and a much more widespread scale (such as Dr. King). When someone treats you or others unfairly, and you feel angry, you can harness that anger to stand up and correct the situation.

        Negative emotions create fire in your belly – they motivate you to be productive, solve problems, stand up for what you believe in, gain back your personal power and make changes that propel you – or maybe even society – in a different direction.

        I love this quote from Arun Gandhi (grandson of Mahatma Gandhi):

        “Use your anger for good. Anger to people is like gas to the automobile – it fuels you to move forward and get to a better place. Without it, we would not be motivated to rise to a challenge. It is an energy that compels us to define what is just and unjust.”

        5. They Allow You to Live Wholeheartedly.

        Many of the world’s ancient wisdom traditions, philosophers and psychologists have valued and been intrigued by the light-dark, negative-positive, shadow aspects of our selves.

        Think about the concept of yin and yang in Chinese philosophy:[3]

        “It describes how seemingly opposite or contrary forces may actually be complementary, interconnected, and interdependent in the natural world, and how they may give rise to each other as they interrelate to one another.”

        You know the movie Inside Out? I’m embarrassed to admit this, but I’ll share it anyway. When the movie first came out, I didn’t want my kids to see it. Why? Because I didn’t want any emphasis placed on ‘negative’ emotions: fear, anger and sadness. Why couldn’t they just make a movie about JOY? Joy is awesome. Add in happy, grateful and excited and now we have a movie I want to take my kids to see.

        Then I watched Brene Brown’s TED talk on vulnerability, and it hit me like a ton of bricks. Maybe it wasn’t until then that I fully realized how important it is to feel all of our emotions. In her talk, she shares that to live wholeheartedly, we must feel the full range of emotions. The positive: joy, gratitude, happiness. And the not so positive: grief, fear, shame, disappointment.

        You can’t selectively feel emotion. So, for us to live as wholehearted human beings, we need to feel and express our full range of emotions. After all, how can you really appreciate the joy of happiness if you haven’t suffered the pain of sadness?

        And as my daughter reminded me, in the movie Inside Out, guess who saves the day? Sadness. Yes, it’s sadness who saves the day.[4]

          6. They Provide Release.

          “What the mind conceals, the body reveals”.

          When we conceal or try to hide or ignore emotions, they don’t just go away. They go deep within us. They eat at us. They cause ulcers, back pain, sickness. That ‘sudden’ heart attack, ‘unexplained’ high blood pressure or ‘unexpected’ anxiety may not be so inexplicable after all.

          Feeling our emotions allows us to release the feeling and move forward. My chiropractor, Dr. Ruth Ziemba once said,[5]

          “Feel them, but don’t let them become you.”

          This has served me well. I think we have all feared those painful emotions of guilt, anger, grief, hopelessness would mean we would fall into a never-ending pit of despair from which may never emerge.

          I have worried I would go too far down the rabbit hole and never make it back to see the light of day. But in order to move on, we must feel and release them. Once we ‘expose’ them, they have much less control over us.

            Rich Roskopf,[6] a bodyworker , trainer, massage and movement specialist, shared something that resonated deeply with me. He was studying the meditation work of Guy Armstrong, author of “Emptiness” and the philosophy that everything needs to arise, persist and pass.

            The same is true for our emotions. When we allow the feelings to arise and persist, they will pass. Grasping, clinging and pushing them down will always lead to unhappiness.

            Even a good cry can help. We have three different types of tears and the ones produced when we cry can make you feel better. Tears cried in sadness contain a chemical that is toxic to our body.[7]

            “Emotional crying is the body’s way of ridding itself of these toxins and waste products.”

            In Japan, they even have ‘crying rooms’ and ‘crying events’ which serve to help participants ease stress levels and release emotion.

              7. They Build Resilience.

              The more you experience the full range of emotions, the more resilient you become to facing and dealing with them.

              Jessie Dudley, Licensed Clinical Social Worker and Program Manager at the Mental Health Center of Denver, had this to say.

              “By allowing yourself to feel everything you need to feel, you learn how to cope and build your toolbox of coping strategies. Then, next time you feel that same feeling, you know what to do and what works for you. You realize the feeling won’t kill you. It doesn’t’ make the sensation any less, but it makes you more aware of how to respond to it.

              If you don’t build coping skills, when you feel those emotions, you want to push them away. Emotional avoidance is effective to an extent. Really, everybody tries to avoid feeling badly. But the more you avoid, the less coping skills you’re developing. The less you are able to cope, the more afraid you become of the emotions, which leads to a vicious cycle of pushing them down. In many cases, people may turn to other unhealthy ways to cope, including addictions and substance abuse.

              Remember this: we are constantly evolving. Your coping skills will evolve and grow too.”

              As Jessie shared, When you face negative emotions and learn effective coping skills, you feel stronger and more capable to deal with them in the future.

              As a mother, this is particularly relevant. I once read that our job as parents is not to protect our kids from disappointment, it’s to be there for them when disappointment happens. If our kids don’t learn healthy ways to cope with negative emotions, they will struggle throughout life to manage them.

              How to Embrace Negative Emotions and Turn Them into Positive Motivation

              Here’s a process you can use. Let’s call it the ACDC Method.

              A – Acknowledge and Honor the Emotion

              Feel it but don’t let it become you. Let it arise, persist and pass. Sit with it. Your instinct will be to push it away. (Seriously, who wants to feel like crap?)

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              But once you acknowledge it, you can move forward. If you feel uncomfortable or unsafe feeling what’s coming up, you may want to reach out to a therapist or someone who can create a safe space to experience your emotions.

                C – Consider the Positive Intention of the Emotion

                Is it showing up as an early warning signal (or a late one), a catalyst for positive change, a protection or survival mechanism?

                Identify the positive intention behind the emotion.

                D – Double Check Your Story

                Sometimes our negative emotions are warranted, but sometimes they are misplaced. Make sure to check them out.

                If you’re feeling worried, is there really something to worry about or has worrying become a bad habit? If you’re feeling angry at someone, do you have all the facts? Perhaps it’s a miscommunication or misunderstanding. If you’re feeling sad or defeated, is there a story you keep telling yourself that is not true? Before you dive in, make sure to double check the depth of the water.

                C – Choose Your Action

                Once you acknowledge, understand and double-check the emotion, think about what action you can take.

                Maybe you thank the fear for keeping you safe. Perhaps you harness your anger and stop putting up with something that is impacting your life or health. Maybe you use your frustration to move forward in a new direction. Or, employ your guilt to right a wrong.

                In some cases, your action may be to do nothing at all other than feel you’re feeling. That’s okay, too.

                When Negative Emotions Become Bad…

                It would be remiss of me not to acknowledge the varying levels of negative emotions that can occur.

                Too much guilt can be paralyzing. Too much sadness is depression. Too much anger can lead to rage. Too much fear can lead to anxiety.

                Experiencing some level of these negative emotions is normal. Experiencing ongoing and excessive levels of these emotions can be a signal that something much deeper needs to be addressed.

                If you’re feeling persistent negative emotions or your emotions are significantly interfering with your life, please reach out to your doctor, therapist or specialist for help and support.

                Conclusion

                To experience all of these emotions is what makes us human.

                What if we could take off the label of negative emotions? What if they weren’t bad? What if they were all just emotions? Negative. Positive. Neutral. We have all sorts of different emotions.

                Let’s just feel them. Listen to them. Acknowledge, honor, accept them. Seek to understand what they are trying to tell us, so we can harness them to live our best lives.

                More Tips About Mastering Your Emotions

                Featured photo credit: Riccardo Mion via unsplash.com

                Reference

                More by this author

                Tracy Kennedy

                Lifehack's Personal Development Expert, a results-driven coach dedicated to helping people achieve greater levels of happiness and success.

                10 Powerful Ways to Be More Confident How to Build Self Discipline to Excel in Life Decision Making 101: How To Be a Successful Decision-Maker 10 Strategies to Keep Moving Forward When Feeling Stuck How to Set Goals in Life to Achieve the Success You Want

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                Last Updated on August 12, 2020

                When Should You Trust Your Gut and How?

                When Should You Trust Your Gut and How?

                Learning how to trust your gut, otherwise known as your intuition, can keep you safe. Your gut can guide you and help you build your confidence and resilience. My own gut instinct has saved me on more than one occasion. It has also guided me into making sound career choices and other exciting, big decisions. I’m also aware of the times when I’ve gone against my instincts and really regretted it later, wondering why I didn’t tune in to that valuable internal voice that we all have within us.

                In this article, we’re going to explore why and how you should listen to your gut, as well as some concrete tips on how to make sure you’re making the most out of your gut instincts.

                How to Listen to Your Gut

                The key when making any big decision is to always take a minute to listen well to yourself and your inner compass. If you hear your actual voice saying yes while inside you’re silently screaming no, my advice is to ask for some time to think, or simply take a breath and pause before the yes or no escapes your mouth.

                Use that moment to breathe, check in with yourself, and give the answer that feels congruent with who you are and what you want, not the one that always involves following the herd. Trusting your gut means having the courage to not simply go with the majority. It can be about holding your own. Here’s how to hone that skill for yourself and reap the rewards.

                1. Tune Into Your Body

                Your body gives you clues when you’re faced with a big decision. There are many visible and obvious symptoms that we feel in uncomfortable situations. Our body’s reaction is often something that we might try to hide, for example, blushing, being lost for words, or shaking. There are things we might do to try and hide that physical reaction, whether it’s wearing makeup, having a glass of wine or coffee to perk us up a bit, or learning to control our nerves.

                However, paying attention to your body when you experience these feelings of anxiety can teach you so much and help you to make sound choices. Some people will experience an actual “gut” feeling of stomach ache or indigestion in an uncomfortable situation.

                Ask yourself what’s really going on here, and explore what is happening behind your body’s response to the situation. What can your reaction or instinct teach you? Understanding that can be a clue and can help you either learn something about yourself, the situation, or other people. The answers are often within us.

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                Sometimes we’ll get this “something’s not right here” feeling and cannot quite put our finger on it or explain it. That can still be incredibly useful and really guide us away from danger, even if we don’t know the reason.

                In his book, Blink, Malcolm Gladwell also argues this, making the point that sometimes our subconscious is better at processing the answer we need, and that we don’t necessarily need to take time to collect hours and hours of information to come to a reliable conclusion[1].

                2. Ensure Your Head Is Clear Before Making a Decision

                Energy, sleep, and good nutrition are so vital to nourishing our minds, as well as our bodies. There are times when your instinct could lead you astray, and one of these is when you are hungry, “hangry” (angry because you’re hungry!), tired, or anxious. If this is the case–and it may sound obvious–do consider sleeping or eating on it before making an important choice.

                There is, in fact, a connection between our gut and our brain[2], which is where terms like “butterflies in the stomach” and “gut-wrenching” originate from. Stress and emotions can cause physical feelings, and ignoring them might do more harm than good.

                3. Don’t Be Afraid to Say What You Think and Feel

                Listening to your gut and really paying attention to it might involve standing up and being counted, calling something out, or taking a stand. As someone who works for myself, I’ve become used to following the less-travelled road, and that’s given me the chance to strike out on my own in other ways, too.

                As they tell you in the planes, “put your own oxygen mask on first,” and part of that self-reliance is knowing what you really want and like and what is safe and good for you, including what resonates with your personal and business values. Making good decisions with this in mind means making choices that do not go against your own beliefs, even when it may mean taking a stand. This is part of trusting yourself and trusting your instincts.

                This does not always mean taking the “safe” option, although keeping ourselves safe is an important part of the process. This is how we learn and grow, by following our own inner compass. When you do take risks, go outside of your comfort zone, or choose the less popular option, spending some time researching the facts can stand us in good stead, too.

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                4. Do Your Research If Something Feels Off

                As well as listening to our instincts, we can also back up the evidence for our chosen course of action before taking the leap. I had a gut feeling about the need for a learning and development network when I noticed my clients getting stuck with the same problems. I set up and now run such a network, but instead of simply going for it, without evidence, I followed up on my instinct with research.

                Having confidence in your gut instinct through these kinds of tests can help to minimize your risks, as well as spur you on. It will encourage you to trust your gut again in the future and trust that you are an expert with foresight and experience. You are!

                5. Challenge Your Assumptions

                When you look at the assumptions your making, this could be the clue to mistakes you are making.

                In order to check that our instincts are wise, we need to ask ourselves what blanks we might be filling in, either consciously or unconsciously. This is true not just when it comes to our own decision-making. It’s also true when we are listening to someone explain a problem or situation, and we’re about to jump in and give some advice. If we can learn to be aware of our own assumptions, we can become better listeners and better decision makers, too.

                A useful tool to become more aware of your assumptions before making a final decision is simply to ask yourself, “What assumptions am I making about this situation or person?”

                6. Educate Yourself on Unconscious Bias

                Unconscious bias is something we all have, and it can trip us up big time!

                There is a vital caveat to bear in mind when wondering about whether you can trust your gut and the feelings your body gives you, and that’s having an awareness of your unconscious bias. Understanding your own bias–which is hard to do because it literally does happen in our subconscious–can help you to make stronger, better, decisions instead of re-confirming your view of the world over and over again.

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                Bias exists, and it’s part of the human condition. All of us have it, and it colors our decisions and can impact on our performance without us realizing.

                Unconscious bias happens at a subconscious level in our brains. Our subconscious brain processes information so much faster than our conscious brain. Quick decisions we make in our subconscious are based on both our societal conditioning and how our families raised us.

                Our brains process hundreds of thousands of pieces of information daily. We unconsciously categorize and format that information into patterns that feel familiar to us. Aspects such as gender, disability, class, sexuality, body shape and size, ethnicity, and what someone does for a job can all quickly influence decisions we make about people and the relationships we choose to form. Our unconscious bias can be very subtle and go unnoticed..

                We naturally tend to gravitate towards people similar to ourselves, favoring people who we see as belonging to the same “group” as us. Being able to make a quick decision about whether someone is part of your group and distinguish friend from foe was what helped early humans to survive. Conversely, we don’t automatically favor people who we don’t immediately relate to or easily connect with.

                The downside of that human instinct to seek out similar people is the potential for prejudice, which seems to be hard-wired into human cognition, no matter how open-minded we believe ourselves to be. And these stereotypes we create can be wrong. If we only spend our time with and employ people similar to ourselves, it can create prejudices, as well as stifle fresh thinking and innovation.

                We may feel more natural or comfortable working with other people who share our own background and/or opinions than collaborating with people who don’t look, talk, or think like us. However, diversity is not just morally right; having a mix of different people and perspectives that can be genuinely heard is also a valuable way to counter groupthink. Diversity stretches us to think more critically and creatively.

                7. Trust Yourself

                It is possible to learn how to truly trust yourself[3]. Like any talent or skill, practicing trusting your gut is the best way to get really good at it. When people talk about having great intuition or being good decision-makers, it’s because they’ve worked at honing those skills, made mistakes, learned from them, and tried again.

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                Looking back at decisions you’ve made, what you did, what the outcome was, and what you’ve learned can help you become a stronger decision maker and develop solid self-trust and resilience. Making a mistake does not mean you are not great at decision-making; it’s a chance to grow and learn, and the only mistake is to ignore the lesson in that experience.

                If you are in the habit of asking others for their input, then the trick here is to choose your inner circle wisely. Having a sounding board of people who have your best interests at heart is a valuable asset, and, combined with your own excellent instincts, can make you a champion decision maker.

                The Bottom Line

                The above tips are all actionable and easy to start immediately. It’s simply about switching your thinking around, slowing down, and taking great care of this amazing machine that is your body and mind!

                Learning how to trust your gut is one of the most fundamental ways to make decisions that will help you lead the life you want and need. Tune into what your body is telling you and start making good decisions today.

                More Tips on How to Trust Your Gut

                Featured photo credit: Acy Varlan via unsplash.com

                Reference

                [1] Science of People: Learn to Trust Your Gut Instincts: The Science Behind Thin-slicing
                [2] Harvard Health Publishing: The gut-brain connection
                [3] Psych Central: 3 Ways to Develop Self-Trust

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