Why Feeling Negative Emotions Can Actually Be A Good Thing, According To Experts
Everybody gets down sometimes — that's the lesson behind many songs and movies, anyway. But no one denies that feeling bad feels, well, bad, and lots of us would like to not experience those negative emotions anymore, please and thank you. But as experts note, experiencing the full spectrum of human emotion is an important part of managing your mental health, and that includes feeling sad. Acknowledging bad feelings can actually be a good thing, experts tell Bustle, because they can offer important insights into your emotional state. In case you missed the movie Inside Out, we all need a reminder occasionally that sadness is important, too.
"Emotions help us connect with our own experiences and with others," Chicago-based psychotherapist Sarah Farris tells Bustle. "Unfortunately, many people may feel pressure from others to not show their feelings or are criticized when having a negative feeling." Result? We don't talk about them and view them as "problems."
Therapist Karen Koenig says this pressure can be damaging because it suppresses the actual function of emotions. "We deem emotions negative only because they’re uncomfortable to experience," she tells Bustle. "This viewpoint does not actually serve humankind because emotions are nothing more than information about our internal world."
Why do we experience negative feelings? Well, they serve several purposes, from helping us see to the big picture to keeping us away from dangerous situations. Family therapist Naphtali Roberts tells Bustle that there are three main benefits to negative feelings: they help us appreciate the good stuff, they keep us safe, and they motivate us to change.
"It is often by sitting with our negative feelings that we can strengthen our ability to identify our values and make choices," she says. When we feel negative about a person or situation, she says, it's often an evolutionary response: "Our brains are wired to notice and pick up on dangerous or destructive forces." If you're feeling bad, that's often a signal that not all is well and that you need to do something to change it.
"All emotions have a purpose, and if we listen to them, they can teach us about ourselves."
But beyond danger, negative emotions can still give us crucial insights. For instance, loneliness, Koenig tells Bustle, is a message that we want to connect with others, while shame is an indication that we've failed to live up to our own standards. Viewing "bad" feelings through the prism of usefulness helps you understand what they're trying to tell you. As Dr. Laura Chackes, the founder of the Center for Mindfulness & CBT in St. Louis, Missouri, explains to Bustle, "All emotions have a purpose, and if we listen to them, they can teach us about ourselves."
The key, the experts say, is to figure out what the messages involved in negative feelings actually are. "Consistently feeling angry at work may indicate that you are being mistreated or that the job is not a good fit for you," suggests Chackes. Sadness, she notes, can also indicate that "a person or situation is important to us." The problem, she tells Bustle, isn't that negative emotions are bad, but that we don't often react to them in healthy ways.
Of course, if negative emotions are getting in the way of your ability to live your life to the fullest, it's valid and important to seek professional help on an ongoing basis. But if you're looking to manage negative emotions that crop up from time to time, or looking to gain more insight from them, there are a few tricks you can use to learn from these feelings. "Practice accepting the feeling without judgement," suggests Farris. "This gives the emotional experience permission to exist as it is, without the individual trying to change it, avoid it or remove it. Once we can do that, thoughts and feelings can be seen as fleeting or temporary." Other tips include journalling or meditation. And, Koenig says, it's important to remember that mental health is a spectrum. "Topnotch mental health involves being able to identify, recognize, and tolerate all emotions, not cherry-pick only the ones which make us feel good," she tells Bustle.