The Positive Value of Negative Feelings
Each negative feeling brings with it an opportunity for growth.
All of our so-called negative emotions have some positive value. In the proper amount, each negative feeling helps us stay on course towards health and happiness. They do this by telling us when we are veering away from:
Our comfort zones
Our physical health
If we had no fear, no regrets, no guilt, and no sadness, we would be little more than unfeeling, uncaring robots. But since we are humans, we do have feelings, and the more human we are, the more ability we have to experience feelings, positive as well as negative. Let’s see, then, what we can learn from a few common negative feelings.
In the proper amounts, fear protects us. It protects us from both physical and psychological danger. In excessive amounts, however, it paralyzes us, or distorts our perception of reality. It is up to us to capture the positive value in fear without succumbing to its excesses. Your fear is excessive if it prevents you from experiencing the positive feelings in life, such as joy, intimacy, and fulfillment.
We are almost always afraid of something. Whenever we feel any negative feeling, it is extremely useful to ask ourselves, “What am I afraid of?” Putting your finger on the fear is a vitally important first step to addressing the feeling by either logic, action or both. Some of the ways various types of fear help us are listed below. In each case, an extreme amount of the fear is unhealthy for us, but in moderation, our fears help us live a better life.
Fear of losing control – Helps us take the steps necessary to regain a sense of control over our lives.
Fear of failure – Helps us accomplish our goals. Helps motivate us to prepare, organize, and persist.
Fear of being alone – Helps us reach compromises with others.
Fear of the unknown – Helps us take reasonable precautions and prevents us from unreasonable risk.
Fear of dependence – Helps us develop our own resources and become self-reliant.
In many ways, anger is an expression of fear. For example, when we were living in caves and fighting off predators, fear quickly became anger, and was an important survival response. When we were physically threatened, our anger helped us either attack or frighten away our predators. In other words, anger empowers us to help us control a threatening situation. Nowadays the threats are more often psychological than physical (though it seems that trend is reversing with the increase in violence and the proliferation of handguns.) In other words, we primarily use anger to protect our egos, not our physical safety. The emotionally smart person asks, “What is the threat that I perceive?” Typically, it is some psychological fear which triggers our anger. That is why anger has been called a secondary emotion. First, we are afraid, then our anger flares up to protect us from a sense of impending loss. This fear occurs when one of our basic needs is being threatened, for example the need for safety, for freedom, or for any of the forms of acceptance, such as respect, acknowledgment, significance. We may also feel powerless or controlled. In these cases, anger empowers us to regain our sense of control over our lives.
Using a little emotional intelligence can help us understand why we feel threatened and deal with the threat in a much more productive way than just flying off the handle, something which often causes additional problems for us. Aristotle understood this when he said:
How much more grievous are the consequences of anger than the causes of it.
As with every emotion, anger has a lesson for us. It teaches us what we value, what we need, what we lack, what we believe, and what our insecurities are. One way to learn from anger is shown in the example below:
Instead of saying,
She shouldn’t have done that. I can’t believe how irresponsible, insensitive, and inconsiderate she is!
a more productive response is:
Wow, I am really upset by this. Why does it bother me so much? What specifically am I feeling besides anger? What need do I have that is not being met? What principles do I feel have been violated? What response is in my best interest?
If we remain aware of our primary emotions when we are angry, we can decide what course of action to take in view of what our goals are. Simply being aware that we have multiple options and that it is in our control to pick the one which is best for us, helps soothe the anger. This is where the balance between upper brain and lower brain comes in. High EQ suggests that we channel our anger in productive ways to help us achieve our goals rather than to sabotage them. Keeping our goals clearly in mind at all times helps us accomplish this.
Disappointment is something we do to ourselves. It arises out of our expectations. It is based on how we think the world should be and how we think people should act. When things don’t go the way we expected them to, it simply means that our interpretation of reality was faulty. It tells us that we don’t understand reality as well as we thought we did. In other words, our expectations were unrealistic. A more intense form of disappointment is bitterness, which tells us that not only did we expect something, but we started to count on it or depend on it.
Many people use the expression of disappointment as a way of laying a guilt trip on someone else. Consider the parent who tells the child “I am really disappointed in you.” The parent who does this doesn’t realize that they simply did not know their child as well as they thought. Turning it into an opportunity to lecture the child will hurt the child’s self-esteem by causing him to feel like a failure. A smarter thing for the parent would be to let the feeling provide an opportunity to get to know the child better, as well as the circumstances surrounding the child’s life, and the way the child makes decisions based on his or her values, beliefs, and needs. The same idea applies to friends or romantic partners.
A more positive form of the same emotion is curiosity. In other words we might say to ourselves, “Hmm, I expected x to happen, in fact I really wanted x to happen. I am sad or hurt that it didn’t happen. I wonder why it didn’t happen.” Such curiosity opens the door to seeking knowledge which helps get our thinking back in line with reality. In other words, situations where we initially feel disappointed can lead to wisdom if we allow ourselves to learn.
When you feel guilty, you are at war with yourself. You have violated some internal standard. This is a good time to examine your standards, apologize, ask for forgiveness, make restitution, learn from the experience, and learn to forgive yourself.
Evaluate your standards – Ask yourself if the standards you are comparing your actions against are really your standards. In other words, did you consciously select them, or were they just handed down to you or forced upon you (as is the case with most of our religion-based guilt). If you do not really believe in the standard, you are punishing yourself needlessly.
Apologize – If you have done something involving another person which you feel bad about, apologize by expressing your honest feelings. Ask the injured party how she felt about what you did, then listen without defending yourself. When the injured party has fully expressed herself, you will have learned a great deal, and she will feel much better. If appropriate, offer to make restitution, by asking what you can do to make it up to her. By these actions you are showing that her feelings matter to you, and that she matters to you. Finally, ask if you have been forgiven. When you have apologized, made restitution, and been forgiven, you will feel much better because you have closure.
There is a chance that the other person will not accept your apology, particularly if she is highly insecure. She may say something to the effect of: “There is nothing you can do! I never want to talk to you again!” When someone denies you the opportunity to apologize, she is attempting to punish you. This makes her feel self-righteous and superior to you. If you feel punished as a result, you must sooner or later forgive yourself the sooner the better, for your sake. The other person is playing a game with you; if you feel punished, she wins. Learn – Sometimes there is no one to apologize to, no one to make amends to, and no way to make restitution. In such cases, truly learning from the experience will help dissipate your guilt. Truly learning means applying what you have learned in order to change your behavior. It doesn’t mean just saying “Well, I guess I shouldn’t have done that,” and then doing it again later. Truly learning also means accepting your faults. Learn to accept the fact that just because you made a mistake, it doesn’t mean you are a mistake.
When we feel overwhelmed, it is sign that we are trying to tackle too much. During such times, the well balanced person is able to step back, and sort out the facts and feelings. When we feel overwhelmed there are always several associated feelings. Fear is almost certain to be one of them. Therefore, ask yourself what you are afraid of. Also, ask yourself what your conflicting feelings or priorities are, because they are sure to exist.
Once you have identified your fears and conflicting priorities, treat each separately. Separating the feelings and options helps you regain your sense of control. For your fears, consider the worst case scenario and assign a likelihood to it. Then plan a course of action which offers you the best chance of preventing your fears from materializing. Just the act of planning a course of action helps soothe your feelings. As far as your conflicting priorities are concerned, think about each in terms of your values and beliefs. Ranking them will help you sort things out. Finally, try to predict your feelings under various scenarios, and then take the action which feels the best.
When you feel uncomfortable, you often actually feel it in your body, usually your stomach. Thus the term “gut instincts.” Your body is trying to tell you to watch out, be careful, or to take some action to get out of a situation. When you feel uncomfortable, use your upper brain to analyze the situation. Determine what is making you feel uncomfortable. Chances are there are several specific negative feelings. Identifying them helps you determine what action is necessary.
Sometimes you need to take unilateral action. Sometimes your action must involve others. Since many people will manipulate you (if you let them) into situations where you feel uncomfortable, you must express your feelings. Let them know with a simple, honest, clear, and direct statement. For example, just say, “I don’t feel comfortable about this.” This helps you set your boundaries and helps you see who respects them and who does not. Either way, it is better to know the reality of the situation.