Disappointment. Frustration. Anger. Fear. Grief. These are just a few emotions that people may think of as negative emotions. I think of them as very informative emotions… if we’re willing to experience them and reflect on them.
It’s understandable in some ways to categorize these and other challenging emotions as negative: most of the time, we don’t like feeling them. In mainstream American culture, we’re often taught—or outright told—to hide these emotions and/or to try to move beyond or get out of them as quickly as possible. If you’ve heard of the subfield of positive psychology, you may think (and some resources seem to reinforce this idea) that it encourages these actions and attitudes too.
Psychology Today has a page covering the basics of positive psychology is more clear, stating that positive psychology “emphasizes meaning and deep satisfaction” rather than simple happiness. A word from the ancient Greek sums it up well: eudemonia, or well-being. To be able to achieve that, a person needs to invest attention and thought into what’s working well for them as well as areas where things can be improved.
That’s where many of these challenging emotions come in. Disappointment and grief may be signals that we valued something or someone more than we realized, for example. Frustration can be an especially complex emotion, because it often includes an expectation that we aren’t living up to at the moment. The unrealistic expectation that we should be good at something when we first try it is a common source of frustration, for example. Anger can have aspects of that too, but usually includes emotional hurt or pain. Fear, like anger, is one of the basic universal emotions; it’s triggered by a real or perceived threat of harm.
All of these emotions contribute to our feelings of being stressed. That contributes to our desire to avoid them and get out of them quickly if we can’t avoid them completely. Ongoing stress does contribute to health problems, both physical and psychological. We need to find a sweet spot: a balance of accepting and exploring them without dwelling on these emotions.
That’s part of why they’re challenging emotions. That optimal range is often a moving target, depending on the specifics of a situation. Also, we’re taught to hold these emotions in from a young age, which doesn’t allow a child to explore them or develop healthier tools for coping with them.
How can we start doing better at identifying and exploring emotions we don’t like? Being aware of our emotional responses as they begin is a great start. Don’t let an emotion overwhelm you… explore what gave rise to it, and whether some of that is based on past experiences. Think about what the emotion or emotions are telling you about the moment. That will help you create a more authentic and appropriate response, rather than losing control and allowing emotions to take over. And when you can do it safely, let the emotion rise and subside, paying attention as it does. You’ll probably find that its peak wasn’t as bad as you expected.
Soothing ourselves is an important tool in handling emotions appropriately, especially in public situations. Many resources I’ve found focus mostly on psychological techniques and distractions. These can be very helpful, but they may not help with the physical effects of strong emotions. I created a video describing the benefits of self-soothing touch. It includes some thoughts on identifying your unique self-soothing behaviors, so that you can use them before your emotions escalate.
Another definition of eudemonia focuses on Aristotle’s philosophy. It is “happiness as the result of an active life governed by reason”. We have the best chance of achieving this when we accept, experience, and learn and grow from our most difficult emotions.