No one doubts or questions the value of feeling good. It’s a state that we all strive for and go to great lengths to maintain. Research has shown that feeling good has physical benefits from reduced instances of cardiovascular disease to lower blood pressure and Law of Attraction enthusiasts (of which I am one!) tout the benefits that feeling good has on raising one’s vibrational frequency, and therefore, one’s ability to manifest joy and abundance.
This is all well and good, but here’s the deal–no one feels good 100% of the time. Like it or not, we are all going to be faced with days that just plain suck. Sometimes there are legit reasons for the suckiness (sore throat, blown alternator on your car, root canal, job stress etc.) but sometimes, something is just off within our spirit which results in us feeling down.
It today’s society, negative emotions are viewed as “unhealthy” and are often shunned, suppressed or medicated. However; the word “negative” is a misnomer as it refers to emotions because in truth, emotions are neither positive nor negative–they simply are. They are tools in our psyche that help to direct our behavior and guide us as we identify opportunities or potential pitfalls along the path to our FabYOUlous goals. Emotions–both those deemed positive and negative–are crucial instruments of survival and, in fact, the human species would have disappeared long ago without them. By understanding better how and when to effectively deploy all of our emotions, we can learn to better navigate our relationship with ourselves and with others. On the flip-side, keeping our emotions bottled up without having an effective outlet can lead to eroded relationships and physical health.
How then do we successfully cope with so-called “negative” feelings of anger, shame, envy, regret, fear, sadness or boredom in a way that honors the valuable feedback that they present to us, without allowing ourselves to become overtaken with negativity? One way to navigate this conundrum is to start reframing our experience of these emotions so that we are able to see the up-side of feeling down and capitalize on the positive aspects of these seemingly negative feelings.
Capitalizing on the Positive Aspects of Negative Emotions
Anger: Hoo boy! This one is a biggie. The word anger is only one letter short of danger and the emotion of anger is just one small action, word or thought from a potentially dangerous situation. However; despite the potential volatility of this emotion; much good can come from anger. In fact, I personally credit anger as the catalyst that led me to take the necessary actions to remove myself (and my sons) from a very toxic situation (you can read the gory details here) and turn our lives around.
Anger is probably the most misunderstood of all of the emotions. It most often occurs when we feel undervalued and it prompts us to reassert our value by lashing out, threatening harm or withholding benefits. According to psychologist Aaron Sell, “the primary benefit of anger for an individual, is preventing oneself from being exploited.” If we know that we deserve better than what we’re getting, anger can provide the motivation to take necessary action. Yes–unchecked and unmanaged anger can sometimes lead to irreparable destruction, but appropriate levels of anger expressed in appropriate ways at appropriate times, very often leads to us getting that which we desire.
Unlike many so-called negative emotions that encourage us to avoid situations (think fear, depression etc.), anger typically is a motivator of action. It can boost confidence, risk taking and self-assertion. It will cause people (individuals and groups) to rise to the occasion when threatened with the possibility of losing something valuable. In my own experience, it was the threat of losing my (figurative) voice, sense of personal identity and control over my own life choices that made me angry enough to take a stand and remove myself and my sons from an unhealthy situation. It also had the side benefit of earning me a reputation of one who will not be pushed around or manipulated and therefore garnered me the respect that I had not previously had.
Yes–anger is a tricky, two-edged sword but it most definitely has a place within our repertoire of emotions. Left unchecked, it can wreak havoc on individuals and relationships, but with proper management and expression, it can be a powerful catalyst for positive change. The up-side of anger comes when we are able to channel our anger and use it bring about a breakthrough as opposed to a breakdown.
Regret: Who among us doesn’t have things in our lives that we regret? No one–that’s who. It’s popular to say “no regrets” but in truth, we all have things that we wish we wouldn’t have said or done (or regrets over things that we wish we would have said or done). In fact, research shows that regret is likely the most common “negative” emotion that human beings tend to experience.
Regret emerges when we think about how different things could be if only we had made other choices or behaved differently. We ponder what might have been if only we had handled things another way.
Regret can be an especially difficult emotion to cope with, but that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t have positive aspects from which we can benefit. In fact, many of our greatest life lessons can come to us as a by-product of regret.
As human beings, one of the most effective learning tools that we have at our disposal is our immense propensity for screwing up. Mistakes make excellent teachers and because of this, our emotions highlight our blunders by adding regret to the mix in order to make sure that we really learn our lessons. Research shows that when our mistakes are made more painful by being tinged with regret, they are more memorable and therefore more effective in inducing us to make necessary changes.
Regret (and its trusty sidekick, anticipated regret) shapes our behavior by either motivating us to fix whatever mess we’ve caused, or go to great lengths to avoid future messes (thus the reason we watch what we eat, stop smoking or use birth control.) Regret also requires us to take personal responsibility for our behavior since feelings of regret arise when outcomes of a situation are made worse because of our own actions (or inaction, depending upon the situation).
Though regret can be an incredibly painful emotion to process, its up-side is the fact that its powerful emotional pull makes it an excellent molder of future behavior. Some of our most poignant life lessons come to us through our regrets; therefore, regret is one of our most effective tools for shaping a meaningful life.
Fear: Few emotions render us more incapacitated than fear. We fear failure, embarrassment, pain, loss and heartache. Oh, and spiders…we definitely fear spiders. Research has shown however, that there is a direct correlation between a person’s level of creativity and their ability to face and overcome fears. For this reason, it is crucial that we all learn to get a handle on our fears so that we can live our most FabYOUlous lives (click here for a great post on how to reframe your fears and make them work for you and here for five simple ways to cultivate more courage in your life).
Despite its bad rap, fear does have its up-side. In fact, if it weren’t for fear, most of us would be dead. Fear is a defender that shields us from danger by heightening our awareness and preparing us to escape treacherous situations if need be. It’s what keeps us from walking too close to the edge of a massive cliff or from leaning too far over a balcony railing on the 37th floor. Fear is what prevents us from taking unnecessary risks and therefore, fear promotes self preservation. Even in less life-threatening situations, fear has its benefits because it causes us to think through all possible scenarios and weigh the possible outcomes of our actions, thus allowing us the opportunity to extend the appropriate amount of risk.
Remember, without fear, we’d all be dead but with too much fear, we might as well be.
Shame: This is a difficult emotion for people to process because feeling shame implies that one did something shameful…and that’s hard for a lot of people to own up to. Still, whether we want to admit it or not, shame is something that we’ve all felt at one time or another.
Social cohesion is imperative in order for a society to survive; therefore, members of society must learn to adhere to accepted cultural and moral norms. When we veer too far away from socially acceptable behavior, shame is what brings us back into line. The emotional discomfort of shame causes us to look inward and examine the motivations behind our actions. This introspection is what helps us to modify our behavior and act in a more acceptable way the next time we are faced with a potentially shame inducing situation.
As might be expected, there is a great deal of shame about feeling shame, and yet its up-side is that it is an emotion that enables us to live peacefully within our society. Without shame, we would never be able to trust others–or ourselves.
Sadness: Too many people will do whatever it takes to avoid feelings of sadness and yet, sadness often brings with it the opportunity for healing and growth.
Feelings of sadness come as a response to loss and are an indication that restoration is needed. Sometimes when the loss is great (such as the death of a loved one) sadness can guide us to seek help and to reach out to others in an effort to ease our suffering.
Despite what one might think, research shows that accepting and acknowledging feelings of sadness can actually reduce levels of depression and that sadness is, in fact, a very healthy response to difficult situations. Additionally, sadness has an up-side in that it makes us more rational in our thinking and reduces forgetfulness and gullibility. While none of us would willingly seek out reasons to be sad, the experience of sadness is one that deepens our human experience and teaches us to be compassionate and generous with others.
Envy: It has been said that comparison is the thief of joy, and while that may be true, feelings of envy can bring about certain benefits if we allow them to.
Whether we like it or not, much of our success is dependent upon our relative status within a group. This is how it has always been and this is how it will likely always be. Our levels of happiness and self-satisfaction are greatly influenced by our comparisons of ourselves to others. The discomfort that we experience when we feel like we don’t stack up to those around us can leave us feeling a mix of resentment, shame and frustration–a potent mixture that when combined together creates envy. None of us is immune–I personally experience this when I am participating in a race and see all of the “real” runners dash on ahead of me or when I look at best selling authors and wonder if my writing will ever be recognized.
While envy can certainly be a destructive force if taken too far, it also has real, tangible benefits. Though I certainly don’t enjoy feeling envious; I know from my own personal experience that envy is a very powerful motivator for me and one of the most effective ways of getting me to step up my game; and I am not alone in this. Niels Van De Ven, research psychologist at Tilburg University, found that inducing feelings of envy enhanced a subject’s persistence and performance on a creative task even more than admiration did. Obviously, admiration feels better in the moment but the sting of envy was more effective at lighting the fire of ambition.
Taken to extremes, envy can have dire personal and relational consequences, it up-side however, is that when kept in perspective, it can be a powerful motivator for self improvement.
Boredom: I feel very fortunate because boredom is something that I rarely experience. This is because I absolutely hate being bored so I’ve learned how to prepare myself for potentially boring situations (I even took my knitting with me to the DMV once–I completed an entire slipper while I was waiting).
Boredom is a feeling that is so aversive that people will actually administer electric shocks to themselves in order to avoid spending fifteen minutes alone with their own thoughts (hence the reason solitary confinement is such a horrific punishment in prisons). As bad as this may be–boredom does have an up-side in that it is a very clear indicator that something in our life needs to change. If we find ourselves bored in a relationship or on the job, it is time to start looking for ways to either infuse some excitement into the situation or change the situation altogether.
Boredom also has value in that it can lead us to our passions and purposes by clearly highlighting those things/jobs/relationships/situations/etc. that we are not passionate about. By using boredom as an indicator of where your passions do not exist, you can gain clarity on where they do.
Despite their negative associations, all emotions have both positive and negative aspects–it is up to us however, to capitalize upon the positive. There are times though when finding positivity is nearly impossible and feelings of negativity become more than just passing annoyances. If you find yourself in a dark, negative frame of mind and feel unable to reverse the trend or reframe the emotions, please take steps to get help. Talking to a trusted counselor, spiritual advisor, coach or friend can be the first step to help put you back on a path to positivity and FabYOUlousness.