“Suffering has been stronger than all other teaching, and has taught me to understand what your heart used to be. I have been bent and broken, but – I hope – into a better shape.” – Charles Dickens, Great Expectations
“Without evil there can be no good so it must be good to be evil sometimes” – Satan, South Park: Bigger, Longer, & Uncut
Within the psychology community there has been a great deal of time and energy devoted to thinking about positive and negative emotions. The mental health community spends considerably more energy devising strategies to help us cope with negative emotions and increase our positive emotions. The idea is that our negative emotions are pathological and our positive emotions should be prized. Many people with a genuine interest in helping people feel better have worked very hard to support this model of emotional experience. It seems to me to be a terribly misguided path.
The labeling of emotions as either “positive” or “negative” is a social construct. Just as race, gender, and many other things that purport to be objective realities are merely ideas that we have collectively developed and that shift over time. Yes, it is true that for many of us – but not all – happiness feels far more delightful than sadness, and joy feels much better than despair, but that does not mean that one emotion is “positive” and the other “negative.”
Research varies somewhat, but most of it generally accepts that humans experience between four to six base emotions. These include happiness, sadness, fear, surprise, anger, and disgust. (Those that argue for only four suggest that fear/surprise and anger/disgust are essentially the same emotion). Is it not striking that only one or two of those emotions would be considered “positive?” Essentially, the argument being put forth is that the majority of your brain’s range of emotional experience is pathological, problematic, or at the very least, should be avoided and minimized. The majority. We are being told that most of what we experience emotionally is bad. Okay, so now what? We’re stuck with three to five “bad” feelings that continuously infect us, unless we are able to do enough mindfulness training, take enough medication, or develop enough skills to “manage” them?
There may be four or six base emotions, but we have expanded our nomenclature of emotions to many more than that. Negative emotions may include grief, heartache, hate, shame, hostility, pessimism, panic, frustration, depression, misery, melancholia, anxiety, fear, resentment, and much more. Positive emotions may include pleasure, joy, gratitude, excitement, delight, bliss, love, affection, kindness, curiosity, inspiration, trust, hope, and more.
Culturally, we are encouraged to strive for happiness and fulfillment. That is lovely, but in the process we are encouraged to avoid feeling bad. Have a headache? Take an aspirin. Some sadness? SSRI. Angry? Count to ten and take a breath. Resentment? Forgive and forget. Jealousy, rage, envy …. But the real problem here is that we have created these constructs and promoted the idea that your absolutely normal human experiences are bad. Sometimes we feel anger. Sometimes, when the jerk in front of you in the “10 items or less line” clearly has about 20 items and feels entitled to stand in that line, we feel the rage of injustice. Sometimes when we are denied a promotion or insulted by our boss we feel sadness or insecurity. Sometimes when we look at what our friends have, we feel jealousy. We are told, however, to ignore these things and to strive to dismiss them. We are pushed to be logical and rational, as if these things are superior to emotions. (Check out the work of Antonio Damasio to learn more). We are told, therefore, to not be human. Be machines. Stoic, calculated and orderly. Emotions are messy.
And they are. Messy, that is. Emotions are not orderly. They are not refined. They are primal. Anthropocentrism tells us that humans are special and that we are better than all other animals, who are called savage, primal creatures devoid of reason. Western society has largely convinced itself of this idea, and emotions interfere with that notion. We lean instead toward Victorian austerity. Unfortunately, this does not work. As Freud discovered, our primal Self (Id) pushes through. We try and press it back down, but the pesky emotions resurface, and usually in a much more malignant manner. We deny the dialectic of emotions. Further, we do not learn how to experience and tolerate emotions, which makes them feel that much more powerful when they do (inevitably) come up. Rather than learn to dance with our emotions, we fight them and lose. Always.
Feeling sad sucks. Anger is distressing and can wreak havoc on our bodies if sustained. Jealousy and envy can destroy relationships. There are many, many emotions that quite simply do not feel good and if acted upon, can cause us suffering. When we live under the myth that we must avoid these “negative” emotions, however, we simply strengthen their grip over us in the long term. Wallowing in self-pity or sadness is ultimately not satisfying. Physically assaulting people because of our anger or jealousy is harmful. Impulsivity can sometimes be destructive. I am certainly not encouraging us to dwell in our sadness all the time, or to act on our anger, just as I would not advise anyone to live in a perpetual state of euphoria. (OH MY GOD THAT MUFFIN WAS AMAZING!!!!). What I am saying, though, is that those things that you call negative emotions, are simply emotions. Normal, human experiences.
Difficult emotions can sometimes overtake us. It is not uncommon when they do for us to self-flagellate. We criticize ourselves for feeling these “negative” things and not being able to “conquer” them. This exacerbates the problem. Eliminate the construct of “negative” and “positive” emotions, and rather consider that you are a human being with a limbic system. This amazing and beautiful gift means that you get to experience emotions. It may seem ironic, but accepting your full range of emotions will, with time, experience and support, provide you better balance and make the emotions that can feel challenging much more tolerable. We then grow and allow our complete selves to be expressed and valued.