One of the critical goals of therapy is to learn to acknowledge and express a full range of emotions. All emotions, whether they be positive, negative, pleasant or distressing, serve and important functional purpose in our lives. Often, I encounter clients who are apologetic about expressing negative emotions or discussing the adversities in their life. They show guilt or shame about what they perceive to be negativity. As a society we are becoming obsessed with positivity, constantly being told that we must think and experience positive thoughts and pleasant emotions all of the time. Although positive emotions are worth cultivating, I am not arguing that they are not, problems can arise when people start believing they must be upbeat all the time.
Anger. Sadness. Fear. All the difficult emotions are an important part of life, in fact, new research is showing that experiencing and accepting these emotions are vital to our mental health and wellbeing. Attempting to avoid or suppress negativity can backfire, and the negativity can manifest in other ways. Avoidance can diminish our sense of contentment. Psychologist Jonathan M Adler states that “Acknowledging the complexity of life may be an especially fruitful path to Psychological well-being”.
Hedonic theories define well-being as the presence of positive emotions, the relative absence of negative emotions and a sense of life satisfaction. By taking this to the extreme and feeling that one must be positive ALL of the time, this definition then becomes incongruent with reality. Has there ever been a person on earth who hasn’t experienced some kind of adversity? I’m yet to find one.
Eudaemonic approaches, emphasise a sense of meaning, personal growth and understanding of the self. Goals that require the confrontation of life’s adversities. In this theory, unpleasant feelings are equally as important as the enjoyable ones in helping us develop a sense of self and helping us navigate life’s ups and downs. As Adler says “Remember, one of the primary reasons we have emotions in the first place is to help us evaluate our experiences”.
Negative emotions help to aid us in our survival. Unpleasant feelings can be an indication that an issue in your life needs attention. Even if you successfully numb or avoid thinking about something, your subconscious can still dwell on it. Suppression of thoughts and feelings can even be harmful. Research has shown that those who restrained their thinking often had stronger stress responses than those who suppressed their thoughts less frequently.
So how do you experience negative emotions?
Instead of avoiding negative emotions, accept them. Acknowledge them and be aware of how you are feeling, without trying to change your emotional state. There are many techniques you can use to help you deal with difficult emotions, such as breathing slowly whilst learning to tolerate strong feelings or to imagine the feelings as floating clouds, as a reminder that they will pass. Many of my clients could tell you that I’m always repeating the same thing “Thoughts are just thoughts, and a feeling is just a feeling”.
If the emotion is intense and overwhelming, expressing how you feel through journalling or to another person can be incredibly helpful. Talking or writing about issues can help you to shift your perspective and bring a sense of clarity or closure. If the emotion lingers around, it may be helpful to take action towards what is causing you distress. Confronting the source of the negative emotion can also bring a sense of closure.
Mindfulness exercises can help you to become aware of your present feelings and thoughts without placing any judgement on them. This practice may make it easier to accept unpleasant thoughts.
Psychologist Shannon Sauer-Zavala said “It is impossible to avoid negative emotions altogether because to live is to experience setbacks and conflicts”. Learning how to cope with those emotions is the key. In my experience, once my clients learnt how to accept their thoughts and feelings, they were able to shake off the shame and guilt, and see their problems with greater clarity and proceed down a different path.