Negative Emotions: Use Them or Lose Them

Feeling bad—or, as research psychologists say, experiencing negative emotions—is the antithesis of a feel good model of happiness. Negative emotions are often uncomfortable and many of us take steps to avoid experiencing them or to deny them once we do.

All emotions, though, are innate signals for us to pay attention to something. Think about it: We don’t get angry for no reason. We get angry when someone violates our rights or intrudes on us, and the anger helps us to protect and assert ourselves.

Our evolutionary ancestors relied on negative emotions to keep them alive. When a hungry-looking saber-toothed friend stalked past their cave, the high-alert signals motivated the actions needed to protect them. In our modern world, negative emotions aren't always a bad thing—they can help us focus on problems in front of us, boost our performance, and increase our compassion.

But too much of a bad thing is, well, not fun at all. Many of us experience negative emotions to an extent that keeps us from functioning optimally.

Here are 4 of the major categories of negative emotions and some tips for helping you to think through whether the feeling is a friend that can motivate you to do something—or whether it’s a foe that you should feel motivated to defeat.

Fear

Ranging from the nagging worry that you need to pay your bills this week to the heart-stopping adrenaline rush you get leaning over the edge of a  canyon, fear is telling you that danger is ahead.

When to Use It: A bit of worry can be productive, particularly when it motivates you to take a step to relieve it. If you’re nervous about an upcoming presentation, or worried about going on a blind date, allow the anxiety you feel to drive some extra preparation. In the long run this will boost your confidence.

When to Lose It: If your fear or anxiety is strong enough to be preventing any meaningful movement forward, then it’s time to fight back. Calming and relaxing your body with exercise or meditation can be helpful. So can talking about your fears out loud with a trusted friend.

Anger

Whether you’re a mild irritation gal or a full-of-rage guy, anger comes when we feel we’ve been violated and encroached upon wrongly or unnecessarily.

When to Use It: If someone did something that hurt you, like when your partner wasn’t focused on the good news you were excited to share, listen to your anger and get curious about what’s going on for you. In many cases, particularly with people close to you, it’s appropriate to communicate what you’re feeling in an assertive and controlled way.

When to Lose It: Blaming the world for your problems is not a pathway to happiness. If your anger is widespread or if you don’t have any control over or influence over the situation that frustrated you—like the driver who cut you off to make the next exit ramp—it’s best to drop it.

Try shifting gears by practicing kindness or empathy. Do something nice for someone who doesn’t expect it or imagine what would have motivated someone to act in the way they did that hurt you.

Sadness

A reflection that we’ve lost something we valued, we experience it when we lose a loved one and when we make a transition in our life leaving the past behind.

When to Use It: When you’ve lost something that matters to you, sadness can be a cue to slow down and honor it. When it’s a person, a pet, a period of life, or a profession, listen to your solemn feelings and mark the occasion. Find meaning in what’s transpired and identify a way to carry that meaning forward into your future.

When to Lose It: When sadness cripples you, you may be experiencing a bout of depression. While physical exercise and social contact can help, it may be difficult to get yourself going. Try taking a small step that feels manageable, and focus on what helps you feel better. If a deep sadness persists and is affecting your ability to manage daily tasks, consult a healthcare professional

Shame

Often a painful emotion that hangs on, shame reflects an evaluation that something is fundamentally wrong with us and that we don’t measure up to other people.

When to Use It: A smidge of guilt, when it’s warranted, is exactly the humble pie we need. It forces us to reevaluate our own actions, which may have hurt others, and to apologize and make amends. Take this as a sign that you care about the situation and do your best to fix it.

When to Lose It: Feeling insecure, inadequate, or worse is the best way to crush a good mood. If you are questioning your own abilities or value, take stock that something in your life is truly bothering you, but this emotion isn’t helping. Focus on your strengths to build confidence. Do something you know you can accomplish to create positive momentum. 

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