A Better Relationship with Unpleasant Emotions
BY: T. Franklin Murphy | August 2016 (edited January 19, 2021)
Feeling reactions give wisdom and guidance. Negative emotions are only bad when they fail to motivate positive action.
Negative emotions get a bad rap. All feelings have a survival purpose. Negative feeling affects are often treated as an illness, instead of as a valued messenger. Our misguided relationship with natural reactions invites rascal manipulations to enhance present joy while neglecting work for continued growth. The emotions that we demonize as negative, perhaps, have a positive impact when examined from a wider perspective.
Purpose of Emotion
Emotions have a purpose, constructed from culture, feeling and experience they motivate action. Effectively integrating messages brought by negative emotions can enhance well-being. Ignoring the complexity and acting blindly invites chaos.
What is the difference between feelings and emotions? Read: Interpreting Feeling
Learning and Future Emotions
We store life experiences in memory. Reality of facts isn't stored alone, like data on a hard drive. Experience is interpreted, assigned meaning and give importance by accompanying emotions. These exposures create the lens through which we measure future experiences. We experience life through the constraints of the past. Our foundation of memories refine and expedite responses. We need these building blocks to interpret and predict new encounters, and, then, wisely engage. We accomplish this feat largely without conscious contributions.
Memory is both implicit and explicit.
Evaluations of the present are meaningless without sufficient knowledge from the past to weigh importance of the perceived factors. Our predictions would be chaotic shots in the dark. We raid memory banks to understand experience, identifying associations. Our body responds with pleasure or displeasure; feelings flood neural pathways, assigning importance, and motivating action. A small sound, sight or smell triggers buried memories that activate biological responses. Utilizing the past, we artfully create a coherent story around the present.
There’s nothing dysfunctional about experiences that color the present—drawing from the past has amazing survival benefits. The fluffy brown thing is recognized as a bear with sharp claws and long teeth. Our mind detects small associations, alerting to danger and our bodies respond quickly and efficiently. Startled by a shadow, our heart rate elevates, vision narrows, and cognitive thinking slows. We jump to action, prepared to defend, escape or attack. The shadow may be nothing. But with incomplete information, we still prepare for battle—or escape.
Unpleasant Emotions have Cognitive Priority
Some evolutionists suggest we attune to danger more than opportunity. It makes sense, as far as survival is concerned. For example, if our ancestors failed to notice a hungry lion, preoccupied with their own hunt, the slight overlook may significantly impact their survival (they became lunch); much more impactful than failing to notice the ripe berries growing near the stream. Dangerous elements (or presumed dangerous elements) over-ride pleasure—usually.
Giving attention to the lion, a significant burst of negative feeling affect, shouldn't be considered an illness. The negative emotions are appropriate and essential.
Our mind detects small associations, alerting to danger and our bodies respond quickly and efficiently.
Current research confirms that a large percentage of our meandering thoughts dwell on negativity. The positivity movement encourages policing our thoughts for negativity, and immediately combating the rogue thoughts with something more positive, such as gratitude. Negative thoughts, as the thinking goes, are cancerous and must be crushed before they spoil a good day. There’s supporting evidence to this, connecting optimism and well-being; but the jubilee must be tempered. Some negative thoughts, focused on possible dangers, is protective. Avoiding a single catastrophe may help avoid years of painful recovery.
Unpleasant emotions that motivate positive change should be embraced with gratitude.
During a difficult period of my life, I moved to a small apartment, living alone for the first time in my life. The apartment perfectly matched my needs—affordability in a great location. I excitedly told a friend about my find, adding, on a side note, the single drawback—bright yellow and pink interior walls. I was sharply chastised for being so negative. Perhaps, I was negative, discounting the lucky find, but the critical response surprised me. Ultimately, my dislike of the interior colors motivated a day of painting—a relaxing neutral color. Eliminating negative thoughts just because they’re negative misses the point. Being in tune with likes and dislikes is essential to self-knowledge. Self-protection requires predicting unfavorable outcomes.
See Personal Preference for more on this topic.
Abandoning any critical, discomforting or self-revealing thoughts diminishes wisdom. Purposely diverting our eyes from the lion and focusing on the sweet berries only provides a moment of peace, quickly followed by sheer terror. My discomfort with the color of the apartment walls may seem trivial but directing attention from a giant feline is not. “Stop worrying about being eaten and enjoy the fruit of the vine,” creates vulnerability to real dangers.
Some negative thoughts stem from internal warning and are necessary to avoid dangers by motivating meaningful change to create safeguards against future threats. Dangers exist and constantly threaten physical and emotional well-being. If not addressed, the consequences may swoop down and destroy the quality of our lives. There must be balance. Constant ruminations of devastations destroy peace in the present. Anxious romantic attachment, constantly haunted by the possibility of infidelity, interferes with intimacy and sabotages connections.
Unproductive Negative Thinking
Negative thoughts without functional purpose paralyze. These habits of thought must be combated. These ruminations undermine peace, topple the joys of success, and destroy satisfying relationships. The ugly side of negative thinking increases anxiety, induces depression, and invites helplessness. When negativity suffocates experience, the excitement of new experience is crippled with fear. Novel and unpredictable become too much and we lash out with defensiveness or run for protection.
The ugly side of negative thinking increases anxiety, induces depression, and invites helplessness.
Well-being is a delicate balance between grateful enjoyment and attentive cautiousness. Perhaps it’s not the negative thoughts as much as our relationship to the negative thoughts that needs combating. Constantly forcing positive thoughts, straddled by Life-is-Wonderful dogma, the villain of reality intrudes on our pretty picture. But our ignorance doesn’t save us from the ravishes of ignored dangers that strike revenge, rewarding our over-sight with painful consequences. We must heed legitimate warnings. Negative thoughts are not problematic. It’s how we respond to them. Stories, thoughts, explanation of events will constantly stream through consciousness. Our relationship to those streams of thought can either disrupt or enrich our lives.
When bombarded with depressing thoughts, we must compassionately remind that the thoughts are just words; they may or may not be true; they may or may not be helpful. The world is full of hungry lions, ready to lunge at the unsuspecting victim; we mustn’t delightfully ignore credible warnings. With a little common sense, we avoid most the life-endangering hazards. Our well-being benefits from pleasurable activities and positive thoughts. But those thoughts must be tempered with cautious and wise preparation to avoid life-disrupting events. New opportunities must be mindfully examined for rewards as well as possible perils. Swindlers love the gleeful dreamer.
We must analyze our thoughts for productivity. Our thinking is much more complex than simply positive and negative. We must dig a little deeper, identifying which thoughts are helpful and which are disruptive. Examine thoughts by asking, “Is this thought helpful? Does it lead to positive action?” If the thought doesn’t motivate, leave it alone. The unhelpful thought may return but we’ve loosened our emotional bond to it. Beware of self-critical thoughts, they rarely motivate, ruminating on personal flaws spawn helplessness, depressing the soul. These dangerous ruminations can spoil relationships, dampen hope, and self-fulfill; extinguish these scourges of well-being.
Sometimes we need the hope offered by positivity, other times a healthy skeptic. By loosening the relationship with our thoughts, we can examine, challenge and reject them; or, conversely, befriend them, heed their wisdom, and respond with constructive action, by painting those annoying yellows and pinks to a relaxing, soft Kilim Beige.
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