Being a counselor, I hear a lot of different things in my office. One of the things that makes me cringe on the inside is when I hear someone use the words negative emotion. In fact, I heard that phrase just today. Somewhere along the lines, our culture decided that positive emotions are things that make us feel good. Things like joy, relief, peace, or contentment make the list. Good feelings are, well, good. “Negative emotions” (i.e. anger, sadness, fear, discouragement) are bad, unhelpful, and therefore, need to be avoided.
Our Western culture values positive experiences and positive emotions. In many ways, the world we live in emphasizes that you should “feel good” pretty much all the time, and if you don’t, something must be wrong with you. There is a cultural stigma attached to sadness, fear, and anger. They are words that bring a bunch of baggage with them, so I fully understand why people enter my office using the language of “good and bad” with emotions.
Emotions have a purpose.
One part of being human means experiencing emotion. In fact, feeling is what sets humans apart from other elements of the created world. Emotions are meant to be signals that get our attention about something happening around us. They function as an alarm wanting us to pay attention to something happening in life and have the important job of connecting us to our experiences or to other people.
Every emotion has a purpose. If you are feeling sad or angry, there is a reason why. Ignoring that emotion will only lead to greater problems down the line. The more we ignore emotions (especially those we classify as bad ones) or try to control what we feel, the less emotional resilience we have. This means that emotions actually have more control over us. If an emotion has control over you, the emotion is not actually serving its purpose of informing you about what is happening in your world.
If we believe that certain emotions are bad, we downgrade and ultimately dismiss the importance of the emotion as a whole. The language that we use gives power to what we think, so the word “bad” brings baggage with it. It might make us think that we should not feel the way we do or that we are wrong to feel a certain way. Ultimately, classifying emotions as bad can leave a person feeling ashamed that they are experiencing that emotion, so in addition to whatever “bad” feeling is present, now there is also a layer of shame attached to it. Instead of one emotion, the person now experiences two.
So if emotions are not good or bad, where does that leave us?
Shifting to a mindset of comfortable and uncomfortable
What if we shifted our mindset of good and bad to comfortable and uncomfortable? This is often what I am working to teach in my office. Feelings are simply feelings. They are not good or bad; they just are. Certain emotions may be more pleasant to experience, but pleasant and unpleasant or comfortable and uncomfortable are completely different ways of classifying an emotion than good or bad. Yes, feeling sad oftentimes feels vulnerable and uncomfortable, but sad is not bad.
I still have five little characters from Inside Out on the shelf in my office. When this emotion conversation comes up, I often ask kids, “If Sadness is bad, how come she was included in the movie as a key character?” Inside Out teaches a lot of things, but one of my favorites is that all of the emotions are important. One of the most moving scenes of the movie is when Joy realizes that Sadness doesn’t ruin everything because she has an important job.
Hear me: uncomfortable does not mean bad! Anger is not bad. If you feel mad, it likely means something happened to you that did not feel fair or that you were bothered or hurt by an experience. Anger can lead to making bad choices. For example, if I feel mad and yell at my kids, I have made a bad choice in response to the anger, but anger, in and of itself, is not bad. Sadness is not bad, either. Sadness has the purpose of connecting us to others and recognizing actual or perceived losses. What you feel is often a response to what is happening in the environment around you.
So when you notice that you are feeling a particular emotion, follow these steps to allow the emotion to fulfill its purpose. First, acknowledge what emotion it is, but be careful to not put it in the good or bad camp. Second, seek to understand what triggered the emotion and pay attention to what the emotion is trying to help you see. What was happening leading up to the moment you noticed the emotion? Then, when you have done those things, you can implement a coping response to the emotion. When you feel sad or mad, are there particular things that you need to do that help you feel better?
Set yourself up for emotional success and work to shift your mindset. Emotions do not fall into the good or bad camp. Sure, sometimes they are uncomfortable to experience, but each emotion has an important job and labeling it as “bad” only complicates the matter.