Why Negative Emotions are Actually a Good Thing
It turns out humans are just really, really bad at avoiding how they feel, yet it's still a wildly popular thing to do. Emotions tend to have a way of making themselves known in one way or another and, once they're apparent, it's hard to turn your attention away from them. It's like if I told you that you absolutely must not, under any circumstances, think of a banana. What will happen? Yup. Nothing but bananas. This isn't such a bad thing when it's a positive emotion like excitement, anticipation, happiness or joy but it becomes tremendously problematic when the emotions are deeply uncomfortable or feel unacceptable. As distressing as some emotions can be they are, believe it or not, vital to our wellbeing.
Psychologist Jonathan M. Adler of the Franklin W. Olin College of Engineering says, "Acknowledging the complexity of life (e.g the good AND the bad) may be an especially fruitful path to psychological wellbeing" and argues that, just as we cannot help but think about a banana when told not to, attempting to suppress thoughts can backfire and even diminish our sense of contentment.
Some of the most compelling research on this idea comes from Dr. Steven Hayes, the creator of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) which teaches patients to accept unavoidable private events (e.g., thoughts, feelings) and to simply notice thoughts without judging them as true, false, bad or good. In this study, he found that using ACT with those suffering from severe and disturbing positive psychotic symptoms such as auditory and visual hallucinations, actually helped them cope with such symptoms enough to decrease rehospitalization! Simply put, directly trying to make symptoms go away (i.e., ignoring our feelings) could produce paradoxical effects (i.e., make us think about them more OR make them more distressing). However, if we instead practice acceptance of those feelings, judge our thoughts less, and identify a valued action we can take about whatever is bothering us we may actually move through our problems more quickly.
As much as we'd like to ignore the things that make us feel terrible, we experience negative emotion for a reason. As Adler says, "One of the primary reasons we have emotions in the first place is to help us evaluate our experiences." In fact, bad feelings can be a vital clue that a health issue, relationship, or other important matter needs attention and because of this, Adler argues, the survival value for negative emotions may explain why suppressing them is so fruitless. Fruitless, and often entirely beyond our control...even if you successfully avoid thinking about something, your subconscious may still dwell on it. For example, in a 2011 study psychologist Richard A. Bryant and his colleagues at the University of New South Wales in Sydney told some participants, but not others, to suppress an unwanted thought prior to sleep. Those who tried to muffle the thought reported dreaming about it more, a phenomenon called dream rebound.
Not only are negative emotions biologically necessary in order to help us make sense of our experiences and act accordingly, but they also provide important context for appreciating the good things when they do happen:
“I know that pain is the most important thing in the universes. Greater than survival, greater than love, greater even than the beauty it brings about. For without pain, there can be no pleasure. Without sadness, there can be no happiness. Without misery there can be no beauty. And without these, life is endless, hopeless, doomed and damned.
Adult. You have become adult.” ― Harlan Ellison, Paingod and Other Delusions
So what it comes down to is this: We often feel bad but it's not such a bad thing...as long as we allow ourselves to view our negative emotions as simply information about our current lives and perhaps to evaluate possible change that needs to occur. Start by noticing thoughts without judging them as true, false, bad or good. Instead of backing away from negative emotions, accept them. Acknowledge how you are feeling without rushing to change your emotional state and remind yourself that a thought is just a thought and a feeling just a feeling, nothing more.