re-thinking negative emotions

Posted on: June 10, 2012 by Chris Kingman

It is generally assumed in our culture that negative emotions are, well, negative. Unwanted. Garbage. Don’t talk about them. Deny them. Have another drink. Eat more food. Make more money. Have more sex. Just get rid of the feelings.

And increasingly, pharmaceutical companies are exacerbating the situation by way of those disturbing commercials that depict adults living miserable and isolated lives—UNTIL—they ingest the magic pills. Then suddenly their lives are transformed, filled with color and emotionally uplifting music. Most importantly, these newly medicated beings of bliss are no longer alone! Yes, because of the medication, these wonderful people are suddenly holding hands with others, hugging, walking together…and smiling…a lot.

Now let me just say that I am a rabid fan of science and medical advances; however these commercials distort both. Basically, the narrative of these commercials is that negative feelings are the enemy…they are monsters…and there are pills that can slay those monsters and easily deliver joy (and romantic love!) back into your life.

Suffice it to say that this framework for understanding feelings and emotions (and human experience) is ridiculously oversimplified, painfully destructive and unfortunately, increasingly popular.

emotional experience is personal…and…what is most personal is most general

All feelings/emotions are normal aspects of the human experience. Yes, all of them: dread, shame, confusion, inner conflict, rage, depression, social anxiety, jealousy, envy, fear and more. They are all unavoidable. They come and go in the course of living, as reliable as the rain. And yes, the same goes for love, joy, gratitude, appreciation, happiness and awe.

In other words, the range of human emotionality is universal, and we all experience the complexity of it in our own individual lives. And for sure, some people suffer enormously from emotional/psychological pain in life, while others seem to suffer much less so. Either way, I’m stating the obvious when I say that we all naturally want more of the latter (positive emotions) and less of the former (negative emotions) in our lives…for ourselves and for those we love. No surprise there.

The question is how…how do we maximize the positive feelings and minimize the negative feelings in our life experience? This is the perennial question.

Many who have pondered this question believe, as do I, that the answer has everything to do with how we think about and respond to the inevitable negative feelings that we are sure to experience in life, as they arise during the course of ordinary/everyday living.

nyc therapy for depression/anxiety: the human capacity to learn and grow

Over the years it has been quite wonderful to see more and more NYC therapists (and beyond) relating differently to depressive feelings, anxious feelings and other negative emotions. I would describe the shift as one where there is less focus on pathologizing the human experience, and much more appreciation for the human capacity to learn and grow from ALL of our experiences, including (or especially) the negative ones.

Which brings us back to the ‘how’ question:

How exactly is it possible that we might learn and grow from feelings of
depression, anxiety, rage, envy, insecurity, fear, restlessness, etc?

Well, first we need to think/believe that we CAN learn and grow from these experiences.

Second, we need to make a high priority of: (1) being aware of the ebb and flow of emotions as they arise in our ordinary/everyday experience; and (2) being committed to taking creative and constructive action when our negative feelings first arise…when they are in the kindling stage, long before they erupt into full blown fires.

If we can learn to do that on a (fairly) regular basis, then we are on a very valuable path in life.

therapy that respects the human condition

For example, let’s look at what the eminent existential therapist, Rollo May, said about anxiety in an interview on PBS:

…what anxiety means is…it is as though the world is knocking at your door—and you need to create, you need to make something, you need to do something…
…for people who have found their own hearts, their own souls—anxiety is a stimulus toward creativity, or courage…it’s what makes us human beings…
…I have anxiety and so I apply myself to new ideas…I write books…I communicate with my fellows…

Essentially, Rollo May is reframing how we can think about and respond to the onset of feelings that are normally regarded as undesirable. There are enormous implications to the idea that we can make use of our negative feelings by relating to them as REMINDERS to get more deeply engaged in the process of meeting our own needs for social connection, togetherness, creative output, mastery and more.

which human needs are you NOT successfully meeting in your life?

I encourage the clients I see in my therapy practice to increasingly pay attention to their feelings, and to regularly respond to anxious, depressive or other negative emotions by asking themselves—“which of my needs should I be attending to today?”

When we ask ourselves this question we may realize that we have been neglecting our fundamental needs for: love and appreciation…for meaning and engagement…for health and vitality…for greater adherence to our values…for more clarity and organization in how we are using our time…for learning and growth…for greater material security…for more effective interpersonal skills, etc.

Obviously this process of questioning is impossible to do if you’re in the middle of a full blown anxiety/panic attack or a debilitating depression. Those situations do often require medication and intensive medical intervention in the short term. But as soon as a person is stabilized, even a little bit, we need to get back to work on active engagement in the life-building process.

the pursuit of emotional balance

One key aspect of psychological health and emotional well being is learning to pay attention and attend to your feelings and emotional reactions on a daily basis. It cannot be something we do once in a while. Crisis management is not a good model for psychological self-care.

In other words, taking care of your emotional life is like taking care of a garden…if you neglect it day after day, you can expect to be entangled by more and more weeds.

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