3 minute read
In our society, we’re taught to avoid pain. To only feel good. To redirect ourselves to joy when we feel sad. That sadness and other “negative” emotions are intolerable and not OK.
But the truth is, an inability to understand and sit with the range of our feelings separates us from the meaningful parts of our lives. It distances us from our goals.
We need “negative” emotions, just like we need “positive” emotions.
So, while we may try to minimize or manage certain emotions, we shouldn’t try to eradicate any. Regardless of whether they’re “good” or “bad,” every emotion has an important function.
Here are some examples of how our emotions serve us:
Joy alerts us to what we are drawn to by reinforcing what we want: attachment, connection, reward, accomplishment, fun. Joy also can go a little haywire—like when it reinforces something in the short-term (think: drugs, unhealthy relationships) that causes greater distress in the long-term.
Feelings of love might be romantic, or they can be tied to high regard for a person, concept, or cause. Love is commonly associated with feelings of attachment—they fall on the same spectrum. Attachment is strengthened by trust and closeness, which develops over time through common experience and shared identity. Humans are creatures of social connection, and we survive and thrive because of our attachments, including ones based in love.
Anger is a strong feeling of disapproval or dissatisfaction, usually brought on by some real or perceived wrong. Our ability to perceive something as unfair, dangerous, or unsatisfactory gives us the ability to advocate for change, for ourselves and for others.
Fear and anxiety incite us to stay vigilant and on our toes. Impending danger, an upcoming exam, speaking in front of an audience, a date, life transition, day-to-day stress—they can all lead to fear and anxiety. These emotions are about avoiding scary things, and that’s how they can overwhelm us: Scary things can’t always be avoided. But, for the same reason, fear and anxiety are also an impetus for planning and preparation.
Suffering over a loss or painful experience, a sense of disconnection, and disappointment are ways that we feel grief and sadness. But it’s not all bad: As this review of the 2015 Pixar movie Inside Out points out, “Sadness, it turns out, is not joy’s rival but (its) partner. Our ability to feel sad is what stirs compassion in others and empathy in ourselves. There is no growth without loss, and no art without longing.” As difficult as these emotions may be, they signal disconnection and prompt us to reconnect.
Guilt and shame communicate—fairly painfully—when we’ve transgressed others’ perceived expectations for us, or our expectations for ourselves. These emotions can go off path when they lead us to think “I’m a bad person” instead of “I did a bad thing.” But they serve to correct our actions too: Guilt and shame are how little kids, who can sometimes be cruel to their peers, recognize that cruelty doesn’t feel good and then change their behavior.
And that’s a perfect example of why we wouldn’t want to eradicate an emotion: Guilt and shame can feel terrible. But just imagine what the world would be like without them.
So, be curious about why your emotions are here, and why you’re feeling them. Attend to their purposes, and you’ll be able to live a more present and engaged life.
Midwest Counseling & Diagnostic Center can offer support. Our extensively trained, highly skilled therapists are down-to-earth, non-judgmental, and committed to helping you find the path forward on your journey. For more information, please contact us.