One children’s movie really hit the nail on the head in terms of demonstrating one of the most important foundations of therapy, in my opinion. Disney Pixar’s movie Inside Out taught us that negative emotions- meaning sadness, worry, fear, and anger- are okay to have. In the movie, the character Sadness has an important role. We learn that she is necessary to Riley’s life. The movie showed us that all of us have all the different emotions sometimes, and that’s part of life. More than that, it’s even good to listen to Sadness sometimes. One of the phrases I found myself saying the most in therapy sessions with clients is that all emotions are okay, and this is why:
Everyone likes to feel happy. And, everyone likes it when everyone else around them is happy. That’s a good thing, and by and large these blog posts are written for the simplified goal of helping people be happy or, put another way, reducing negative emotions. But, by trying to promote happiness in ourselves and others, we sometimes unintentionally shame or ignore important and valid negative emotions.
Accept Rather Than Ignore Negative Emotions
It makes sense that we try pushing away negative emotions because no one likes feeling them. And it’s also true that focusing on the positive can make us happier. Sometimes we just need to distract ourselves from feelings of irritation, nervousness, or disappointment and focus our thoughts on more positive or relaxing things. But, distraction and ignoring aren’t the same. Not acknowledging and ignoring emotions, or living in denial, does not have good results. Put simply, when we ignore something then we can’t take care of it.
Acknowledging negative emotions helps us cope with them. Not only does labeling (or stating) emotions help soothe us, as the quote above indicates, but it also opens it up for us to decide how to cope with them. This sounds obvious, but how often do we walk around without really paying attention to what is going on inside of us? Probably a lot. Instead of ignoring emotions, we benefit when we become self-aware. When we are aware of what is going on then we can decide what to do about it. We may actively work on challenging our unhelpful thoughts. We may distract ourselves until our emotions have subsided. We may engage in an activity that lowers the intensity of the emotion. We may let emotions wash over us instead of getting entangled in them and buying into their strength. Put practically, we can go for a walk, talk it over with a friend or write in a journal to feel better, practice deep breathing, count our blessings, or read a book.
To sum it up, when we choose to acknowledge emotions instead of push them away then we can choose how to cope with them.
Beware of Shaming Negative Emotions.
Imagine that someone tells you that you cannot be angry at your sibling or best friend because it really isn’t that big of a deal-just get over it. Imagine that someone tells you not to be sad because your recently deceased loved one is in a better place. Imagine someone tells you to get over a major disappointment because big boys don’t cry. Imagine if someone told you that you are way too excited about something and to calm down. I think most people may feel justified in their original feelings. But, after we’ve been taught enough times that these negative feelings are bad (whether it be immature or unfounded or not a worthy emotion), sometimes we lose that acceptance of our emotions and start to feel shamed instead. And shame never leads to a good place. In fact, shame is a major trigger for unwanted behaviors. (Read more about Brené Brown’s awesome work on shame in our article here.)
Believing that negative emotions are not okay can have unintended consequences. For example, it can translate into mistakenly believing that tolerance equals forgiveness in abuse. Maybe it leads to feeling ashamed for feeling depressed because well-intentioned loved ones don’t personally understand depression and think the advice of “just be happier” is helpful. This invalidation and perceived loss of support can further the downward spiral of depression. Invalidating someone’s frustration can escalate the situation and lead to further anger. I think you start getting the picture; brushing off emotions, whether your own or someone else’s, isn’t helpful.
Instead, try remembering that everyone gets sad, anxious, hurt, and mad at times. Try to validate negative emotions in others, but also give yourself permission to feel as well. Have compassion with yourself. One survivor of sexual abuse said one of the most important things her therapist did was validate her emotions and let her know that it’s okay to feel the way she was feeling.
It’s How we Deal with Emotions that Counts
So while all feelings are okay, I would argue that it is how we respond to emotions that starts to have a healthiness or unhealthiness, a rightness or a wrongness. For example, most of us will become irritated when our significant other doesn’t do something he/she promised they would do. We can choose to respond by yelling that they’re an idiot or taking a break to cool off and then calmly expressing our frustration. We can choose to tell our friend all the reasons why our spouse isn’t acting how we want them to; or, we can take a moment to breathe and try to understand where they’re coming from and why they’re lovable.
Most of us will feel sad or disappointed if we lose a job opportunity we sought after for months. We could choose to dwell on it, avoid our friends and lock ourselves in our house. Meanwhile we eat a pint of ice cream while telling ourselves that we’re worthless and will never get hired. Or, we can accept that it is disappointing, talk to our friends for support, and seek advice on how to better ourselves for the next job prospect.
In the abuse scenario, we could believe we have to tolerate abuse and try to forgive instantly, or we could acknowledge our pain and remember that forgiveness and healing is a process. We would remember that in this case the negative emotions are letting us know that the abuse wasn’t right and we are hurt and need to heal. Anger can be a good thing when it prompts us to seek justice in healthy and lawful ways.
Maybe you are thinking that this is find and good and all, but what about the people who go into a rage and hurt their family? Is anger acceptable in that instance? I would argue that the person has made several decisions (probably even thousands of long-term and several short-term) as well as fed various thoughts and habits about how to handle his or her anger that have led up to the point of acting out in rage. So again, while everyone feels unhappy emotions, it is how we choose to respond to and act on them that matters.
I realize that I am giving overly-simplified examples. Emotions and life are much more complex and deep. I am doing so in effort to get a point across. Emotions are okay and they are worth being felt, validated and addressed. Everyone feels negative emotions sometimes. But, we choose how to respond. We are not helpless victims to our emotions. Instead of being tossed about by the waves, we can set our sails and move toward our destination.
Sometimes Just Let Yourself Feel
All that being said, it’s also okay to just sit in feelings of sadness or anxiety. The mental health field calls this acceptance or being mindful. I want to emphasize that we don’t necessarily have to even change emotions. For example, it’s okay to grieve and feel deeply if a loved one dies. It’s okay to feel nervous about a job interview or a first date. We only want to start doing something to lessen the feelings if we feel the feelings are too overwhelming and are negatively and significantly impacting our life.
Your Feelings are Not You
Remember that your feelings are not you! You are so much more than your feelings. If you feel depressed, that does not make you a worthless or bad person. It happens to thousands of people every year. You are so much more than depression. You have strength and goodness. If you feel anxious and insecure, recognize that there are so many talents and positive values inside you, even though insecurities may loom large. If you feel broken, believe that you are valuable, that there is hope, and that there is hope. No matter what negative emotion you are feeling, remember that you are so much more than your emotions and there is so much more to your life than the negative emotion you are experiencing.
All this being said, I do believe that feelings of jealousy, envy, or anger based off of power and control don’t lead anywhere productive or good. So I guess not all feelings are okay. But, since we are human, we all feel these feelings sometimes. What can we do when we feel them? The same principles apply. Practice self-awareness. Is there an emotion, such as feeling hurt, behind it that can be addresses? Beware of shaming yourself and create productive and positive mantras to help you choose wise actions. Find support and help from loved ones and from resources.
Sadness, Anger, and Anxiety aren’t Bad
To summarize, we would all do well to remember that sadness, anger, and anxiety aren’t bad emotions. Just like Inside Out, they can be very important. So, while we may not like feeling negative emotions and we usually strive to learn things to lessen them, remember that they’re still okay to feel. Everyone has them. While we can work with them to feel better, try not to fight it by shaming or ignoring it all the while actually making the emotion more intense. Instead, you can choose how to set your sails to get toward the destination, no matter how many more storms you confront. Remember that you are so much more than your feelings. No matter how much you are feeling, you are amazing.
If you are interested in reading more about emotional awareness, validating negative emotions, and consequently coping with them I recommend Emotional Intelligence by Daniel Goleman and Raising an Emotionally Intelligent Child by John Gottman.
Disclaimer: this post is not meant to provide therapeutic services. If you are struggling with intense negative feelings such as clinical depression or anxiety, seek help from a professional therapist or doctor who can help you cope with these emotions.
Goleman, D. (1995). Emotional intelligence: Why it can matter more than IQ. New York: Bantam Dell.
Gottman, J. & Declare, J. (1997). Raising an emotionally intelligent child. New York: Simon & Schuster Paperbacks.