By Irah, May 2 2017 01:02PM
This is a topic that has required attention for some time. The overstated and dangerously simplistic belief that it is unhealthy to experience negative emotions such as anger, fear, sadness and even rage and disgust, to name a few, is incorrect. I can say this with confidence because I have helped many use their naturally occurring and, more times than not, warranted experiences of these very emotions to heal from depression, anxiety, eating disorders, post-traumatic stress disorder, multiple personality disorder and various other psychological struggles. What needs to be better understood to enable you to use negative emotions productively is two-fold: 1. What is occurring within to warrant the negative emotional state? 2. Is the intensity of the emotional experience grounded in the past or the present?
Here is what you need to know about negative emotions. They exist with an evolutionary purpose. We are, after-all, created with the innate need to survive as a species and as individual beings. Nothing exists within us that isn’t in some way necessary, even if that reason is, as yet, unknown. So, if you find yourself experiencing an intense level of emotion in response to a particular event, under no circumstances do I recommend attempting to alter that internal state. Keep in mind, that we are discussing emotions and not behavioral expressions of these internal processes. Perhaps this is the reason that many fear the experience of our negative emotions. They fear the actions that may arise and hold the emotional states to blame. Action is self-directed. Emotion is a natural internal response to a stimuli, be the stimulus internal or external in nature. Yes, sometimes emotions can be irrational, even resulting from an exaggerated interpretation of events or based predominantly on past experiences, but their existence is necessary. Emotions teach us about our environment, the people in our lives and the thoughts and memories that are at work within us.
So, here’s what you do with negative emotions to promote a productive experience, despite their intensity or less than optimal timing: As you experience a particularly powerful emotion, allow yourself to take a step back for a moment from the interaction that you’re having or the thoughts that may be running through your mind. Ask yourself what was happening to elicit this particular emotion. The answer may be obvious or elusive. This exploration, understanding the reason for the reactive experience of anger, as an example, is important. If the reason for your anger is obvious, OK. Perhaps you’re interacting with someone who is “making you angry.” The question becomes, “what did they do or say that triggered the experience of anger? Then ask, from where within your own life experiences did this “trigger” originate? The purpose is to understand the emotion’s origin, not to cast blame. The next step is to gauge the intensity of your reaction. Typically, the more powerful a reaction, the more uncomfortable the emotion and thus the less likely you will be to naturally sit and ponder the experience for the purposes of self-growth and improved self-awareness. That is precisely why the need for this article is so critical. People for whom intense negative emotions are troubling are likely modeling their own discomfort for others and thus promoting the suppression of emotion which does little for ones level of self-awareness and interpersonal development.
To continue, you’ve gauged the intensity of your anger. Now a question of self-exploration. Looking back on your life, as far back as you can go, when did you find yourself experiencing similar moments of anger?
Take some time here to really sit with this question. If memories do arise, recognize that this moment of anger is not merely a reaction to the present, but also a re-experiencing of the past. How interesting, isn’t it, that what we think is a reaction to a particular event is actually the reaction to more than one if not many other interactions and experiences? It is important to punctuate that regardless of intensity, your anger is warranted as it is present to educate you about your internal experience of a stimulus, be it an external interaction or an internal process, such as a thought or a memory. If you recognize that a moment of anger is related to both the current exchange as well as an earlier life event, now you can see the intensity as the combination of events and so all of the events coming into consciousness require resolution. When you become aware of the past’s effect on your present, you can then ask yourself which moment in your life warrants the intensity that you are experiencing. Ask yourself that question again. When you can answer it, you come one step closer to figuring out the appropriate and effective use of your anger. If the intensity is warranted for the present moment, for instance, if someone is screaming at you and you’re becoming angry with them, you can use your anger to tell them you’re not willing to be spoken to in that manner and extricate yourself from the situation. If you’re angry because someone forgot to put the toilet seat down once again but you also remember moments growing up when you would feel angry in response to your father always forgetting to pick you up from school, then you know that there are two situations that warrant attention. The toilet seat is angering, which is healthy, but the intensity of the anger is related to past experiences. This moment of awareness could help you react to the problem at hand with greater composure and eloquence than had the anger been left displaced to the toilet seat issue alone.
Ultimately, anger and negative emotions let you know that there is something wrong. By allowing yourself to explore the intensity of that anger or negative emotion you bring yourself one step closer to mastery, not of your emotions, but of your actions. You can then decide what to do with your anger that can be productive for you. Maybe you speak up for yourself in an assertive way rather than screaming in response or seething with anger silently, after recognizing that your partner who can’t seem to keep the toilet seat down, is not your father who was also absent minded at times. Maybe you will also give yourself time to heal the wounds you developed in your relationship with your father. This could mean self-exploration or entering into therapy to better understand your history and emotional life. Those who direct others away from the experience of naturally occurring negative emotional states don’t have it all wrong. Certainly life is better and easier when anger doesn’t rule your life and negatively impact your relationships. There is a process, however, for allowing positive emotions in and reducing your experience of negative emotions as detailed above. This must be handled consciously, with awareness and self-reflection, making sure to not ignore the healthy human needs that are showing themselves in the initial experience of negative emotions felt in the moment.