Updated: Oct 23
All emotions are a privilege that serve to increase the human experience. Think of a world devoid of all emotion. It does not sound like a fun place, does it? That is what the world would be like if we wished away “negative” emotions. In a world of only “positive” emotions, the human experience would no longer be whole. When we think of the phrase “negative emotions”, we can easily list off a few examples that come to mind. But are these emotions truly negative? When we label something as negative, we immediately begin to dismiss its credibility and fear its occurrence. To better understand this notion, let us discuss a variety of emotions that are labelled as negative, such as fear, guilt, grief, pain, despair, anger, and shame.
A very common fear is the fear of death and dying.
When we begin to think of this fear, what happens?
Our physiological reactions spike, and we experience symptoms such as sweating, heavy breathing, and stomach flutters. Our most immediate response is to attempt to remove ourselves from the perceived threat through means of various coping strategies, such as distraction. By evaluating this fear, however, we can step back and ask ourselves how it is serving us. A fear of dying can be refocused/reframed as a desire to live. When we switch that lens, the fear of dying may serve as a motivating force to live our lives to the fullest.
Grief and Guilt
What about some of the other “negative” emotions, such as grief and guilt?
Many folks who have lost someone close to them may experience grief over that loss, and guilt that they may not have spent enough quality time with them. But even grief and guilt serve us remarkably well as reminders to value the people in our lives. Grief holds a particular beauty to it, as it is a reflection of the value in connection that we as individuals get to experience.
Pain and Despair
Have you gone through the horrible experience of a breakup?
That heart-wrenching feeling of emptiness that follows a breakup that we did not want to occur, can be so emotionally, physically, and psychologically painful. Following these types of breakups, we may often be left in despair with more questions than answers, and feel confused and alone.
But why do we experience that pain in the first place?
That pain and despair come from loving and caring for another individual. If we did not care about the person who broke up with us, then the breakup would be simply transactional and we would carry on with our lives. Every relationship that we are in facilitates personal growth.
Reflect back on a recent relationship that ended. What did you learn about yourself from that experience (i.e. your values as an individual and as a partner)?
Anger is an uncomfortable emotion that often comes forward in times of injustice - when we feel as though others have wronged us in some way. Anger’s journey through the body can be depicted in the form of a wave.
Have you heard of the term urge surfing?
This concept states that an urge comes forward and begins to build to the point where it is completely unbearable. At that moment (the “crest”), the individual has the choice to give into the urge, or to let the wave crash and recede back to the sea. Every time we let that wave recede, it – the urge - becomes smaller. This wave metaphor can be applied to powerful emotions such as anger. If left unchecked, anger can quickly turn into a state of rage – an uncontrollable version of anger with heightened physiological arousal. In states of rage, we tend to bring forward a more primal version of ourselves that can lead to potential repercussions, such as the end of relationships, loss of a job, and a hit to your reputation to name a few. While anger often feels uncomfortable, it acts as a protective version of yourself that comes forward in times of need. In a way, this is like a big sibling standing up for the younger sibling in a time of conflict. Anger, therefore, is on our side, rather than something to fight against.
Shame is a survival response that feels personal by nature. It is a body response that is complemented by cognitive schemas that reinforce ideas such as “you should not have done that…you are a terrible person”. Shame is often fortified by the all-powerful “SHOULDS”. A “should” is simply an expectation, created by oneself or another person, that dictates/demands a certain behaviour. When we do not follow through with that expectation, we feel shame as we believe that we are letting ourselves down and that we are not living up to what is expected of us. By understanding what shame is trying to accomplish, we can become aware of its attempt to decrease arousal/stress, maintain compliance, etc.
Shame can be maladaptive and used to reinforce false or unrealistic ideas. However, in some instances, shame can be adaptive and reframed as an attempt to cope with dangerous expectations. For example, it can prevent us from going out and overindulging the night before an exam, or engaging in risky behaviours that can have negative consequences.
Whether the emotion be fear, guilt, grief, pain, despair, anger, or shame, all emotions serve us. However, if left unchecked and unmanaged, we can end up feeling overwhelmed and drowned in them. By noticing these emotions as body sensations that provide us information, as opposed to negative feelings, it minimizes our negative reactions to them. Just as mentioned with anger, we want to minimize the impact of overwhelming emotions on our psyche to reduce distress. By being aware of these emotions and how they affect our body, we can better understand what that emotion is telling us and give ourselves control over how we choose to react to them. This practice of switching focus off of the emotions themselves and onto how they serve us is difficult, but builds resilience.
This article was written by Jason Taylor, MA, RP (Qualifying), CCC, CSTIP, CTP
Lloyd, A. (2003). Urge surfing. Cognitive behavior therapy: Applying empirically supported techniques in your practice, 451-455.
Makkai, T., & Braithwaite, J. (1994). Reintegrative shaming and compliance with regulatory standards. Criminology, 32(3), 361-385.