How many times have you told yourself you’re not supposed to feel the way you feel? Or you faked a smile to hide away your sadness, pushed yourself to feel good, and ended up feeling even worse?
We live in a society that often assumes that we have everything to feel satisfied and happy. And that we’re supposed to do so all the time. In this context, negative emotions can feel wrong and uncomfortable.
In this article, we’ll see what research shows about the impact of how we deal with our negative emotions. And what it does to our overall happiness.
Feeling bad about feeling bad only makes us feel worse
No matter how much we may try to avoid them, we all occasionally experience negative emotions such as irritation, guilt, anger, sadness, or shame.
But since these emotions are not generally well regarded, we tend to avoid them, hide the fact that we feel them, and force ourselves to feel differently.
We might even see it as a strength, to be in control of our emotions. When in fact, this behaviour can bring us further down.
A recent study from the University of Berkley, California, showed exactly this: feeling bad about feeling bad only makes us feel worse.
In this study, people who didn’t beat themselves up for feeling bad had higher scores of well-being. Contrary to the people who showed avoidance towards negative emotions.
To understand how this translates to real life, the researchers suggested a metaphor to how one can relate to negative emotions., in a more healthy way. How about if we compare them to darker clouds in the sky?
With a healthy mindset, one doesn't judge the greyness of the sky. Instead we know that the clouds will eventually pass, and the sun will shine through again.
Using this kind of metaphoric explanation, when dealing with negative emotions, helps the individual to not engage in cognitive distortion. (Such as generalising or catastrophising)
In this way, instead of dwelling on these feelings and even perhaps thinking that “I'll never be happy,” or "my life is miserable,” one see it as a temporary event.
Feeling right vs. feeling good
This attitude of acceptance has also demonstrated to be beneficial on another cross-cultural study, involving university students from eight countries. (China, Germany, United States, Brazil, Poland, Ghana, Singapore, and Israel)
In this study, researchers found that people who allowed themselves to feel the emotions that felt right at the time, whether these were pleasant or unpleasant, showed higher signs of psychological well-being than those who didn’t accept their emotions.
In all cultures, the openness to experience a wide range of emotions (not just the pleasant ones) was related to greater life satisfaction, and fewer symptoms of depression.
This shows that a healthy psychological approach to emotion is not to avoid the unpleasant and prefer the pleasant. But to allow the experience of emotions that feel meaningful and adequate.
The problem of feeling good all the time
In Western culture, we’re living a moment in time where every day we’re exposed to positive quotes, motivational videos, and people on social media showing how great their life is.
This only contributes to the condemnation of negative emotions. And to one feeling bad about feeling bad, and wanting to avoid it.
Not knowing how to respond to negative emotions can have damaging consequences. Addiction is an example of how people start using their drug or behaviour of choice to mask negative emotions. So to feel good all the time.
A cigarette, a glass of wine, or an afternoon out shopping, can do the trick of putting the negative emotions under the rug. Satisfaction is, after all, a much “easier” feeling to feel.
A healthy emotional response
It is, therefore, necessary to educate on healthy responses and understand how emotions play an essential part in self-understanding.
If, instead of avoiding negative emotions, we could be aware of their origin, we’d be able to use the experience to know more about ourselves. And use that knowledge to grow as individuals.
We’d be more capable of understanding what norm or value have we broken when we feel shame. What area of our life we need to adjust when we feel sadness. Or which personal boundary did we see crossed when we experienced anger.
One way to develop a deeper insight into what our emotions reveal about our life is to write about them.
Rather than engaging in some attempt to distract yourself, take a moment to write about:
You may be surprised with how much 10 to 20 minutes of writing can reveal about the emotions you’re experiencing. You may even understand better the situation that created them, and what solutions may be available for you.
Letting it be
Disregarding the importance of accepting how we feel, and holding on to the idea that we must feel good all the time, is a poor psychological strategy with the potential for long-term damaging implications.
Knowing this should help us to feel better about feeling bad. And accept that to experience a wide range of emotions is not a sign of weakness, but a natural consequence of being human.
In the same way we understand a grey sky hides the sun but carries the precious rain, we can accept our greyer emotions. After all they also carry meaning and impermanence.
Besides, don’t you love the earthy scent of rain?
The Psychological Health Benefits of Accepting Negative Emotions and Thoughts: Laboratory, Diary, and Longitudinal Evidence. 2017https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/28703602 Let it be: Accepting negative emotional experiences predicts decreased negative affect and depressive symptoms. 2010https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20566191