The topic of negative emotions has mostly been a tough one through the years. Sometimes believed to make us weaker people, negative feelings have almost always been the subject of controlling techniques, distraction, and blaming.
But I think that the most damaging of all is the idea that negative emotions and the inability to control them are somehow a fault of ourselves.
I often hear clients say: ‘This is my cross to bear – this anxiety’ or ‘ The fact that I have anxiety makes me a weak person.’ or. ‘I cannot get rid of this anger that comes over me and that makes me a neurotic person.’
I believe that this take on negative emotions is both wrong and unhelpful and I want to take you through the most common negative emotions and see what are they all about and why we have them.
Why do we have emotions?
The short story goes like this: our body is equipped with an interoceptive system – it’s basically the system that monitors your insides and makes sure everything works properly. While we grow up and start learning new concepts about the world, those concepts are linked with their characteristics, and context, but also with the internal sensation and feeling that appears when you take contact with them.
As you grow up further, you start to associate certain sensations with your experience and with the emotion that arises. For example, say you see a bakery, your stomach starts to flutter, you anticipate the gorgeous taste of bread and your brain decodes that sensation as hunger and starts preparing your body for digesting.
Say that you feel the same flutter in your stomach – but this time you are taking your driver’s exam. Your brain compares the sensation with your experience of exams being stressful, with the context and produces the emotion of anxiety to help your body concentrate – your pulse rises, your eyes are more focused, and your muscles get tenser so you can concentrate on your exam.
So, emotions are predictions that our brains make to adapt to the world.
How do we create emotions?
Depends on the context, your culture, and your experience. The way that we understand emotions is largely influenced by the experience that we have with them.
When you are a toddler and feel your heart pounding and are flushed and rush to your mom she might say: ’it’s ok, sweety, you are just afraid.” And that’s how you create a model of fear in your mind.
The same goes for joy. You are again a toddler, this time in the park riding a slide and laughing, and your mom says: “Oh, you are happy to ride a slide, you like it” So you create a model of joy linked to your context, your experience and so on.
Another contributor is all the cultural references that we have. We know from movies, books, and interactions that anger looks in some particular way, that joy in another, and so on.
Emotions are highly contextual – different cultures will have developed different emotions to help them adapt to their environment. For example, Germans have the word ‘schadenfreude’ to describe ‘the joy you feel at someone else’s misfortune’. * I challenge you to create your own words to describe a certain emotion in a certain context. Or the word ‘meh’ to describe a state of being that is neither good nor bad.
What do emotions actually predict?
Let’s take them one by one. We will not talk about how they are manifested because that is highly subjective and NOT universal (yes, you heard that right, not everyone on the planet displays emotions the same way. Rather a group of people sharing the same cultural background and models will have roughly similar displays of emotion).
Instead, we will talk about what emotions predict in our culture (and by this I mean the western culture).
Anxiety: This is a rather tricky one. Anxiety usually signals that something important to you is outside your control. Say your health (that health anxiety), or your self-esteem (that social anxiety); sometimes your performance.
*And there is a big difference between anxiety as an emotion and anxiety as an emotional disorder. They are called the same but if I feel anxiety in a social situation that does not mean that I meet the criteria for social anxiety disorder.
Fear: fear usually signals an immediate threat.
It does not mean that the threat is real – it just means that your brain predicts something is dangerous and creates fear to keep your body engaged. Just in case. Remember how you might hear a sound in the night and feel fear just to realize that it was just your cat playing?
Guilt: this is one emotion that so many want to get rid of. It is so loaded with negative affect that we want to control it right away But guilt is an especially helpful emotion. It usually signals that we are doing something wrong, something that is outside our values. If I yell at a co-worker for example and feel guilt, then maybe this signals that this is not the way that I want to behave. Even if he acted as an ass-hole. Removing and controlling guilt will keep me from acting according to what matters to me.
Frustration: This usually signals an unmet expectation. “I would have expected my salary to go up this year and it hasn’t.” This is frustration.
Sadness: this is a particularly difficult one because most people associate it with depression disorder and get quite alarmed when they feel it. The reality is that sadness is quite a common emotion, usually signaling the need to regroup and re-think a situation. It can also signal the need for some connection with other people.
Why is this all important?
Because you cannot regulate what you don’t know. It’s like saying that you have pain, but have no idea what it is, how it feels, or where it is. A doctor would have a very difficult time treating that.
In the same way, knowing how you feel, the name or description will help you enormously in regulating your mood and directing your actions where they most benefit you.
Moreover, emotions are not negative or positive, some we have to keep and some we have to discard. They are all information about the context, your experience, and what actions you should take to better adapt to the world.
Be kinder to your emotions. They might just save your relationships, job,
and mental health.