By Anja Baudisch & Dunja Stojkovic
“Stay positive” and “cheer up” are among the most common phrases of our time, as if it’s now socially unacceptable and “wrong” to feel any other emotions but joy, happiness, and gratitude for what we already have. Showing up for work a bit cranky these days for whatever reason can instantly give you the reputation for being a grumpy, demotivating person, and being in a bad mood for a couple of days can have even more serious effects. The pressure isn’t only to hide certain emotions, but not to feel them at all. We have planners, posters, and even pillowcases with messages such “smile and the world will smile back at you” or “think positive!”, and as if this weren’t enough, there are people reminding us that some feelings are just not worth paying attention to or, for that matter, not feeling at all. This attitude isn’t only annoying to those of us tired of hearing such things, but it can be frustrating and dangerous. Bottling up emotions isn’t necessarily the greatest thing to do for our mental health.
ALL EMOTIONS ARE CREATED EQUAL
To find out why we even have these feelings that are now deemed inappropriate, let’s look into why we have them and how they have survived over time.
It is thought that there is only a limited number of basic, universally recognized human emotions and scholars still argue about the exact number, but the most common classification identifies six: anger, disgust, fear, happiness, sadness, and surprise . If you examine these closely, you will notice that only one of them, happiness, is exclusively pleasant, while surprise can go both ways. So when we try to ignore unpleasant feelings, we’re basically trying to ignore a whole bunch of our basic emotions and we deprive ourselves of a common human experience. These emotions don’t exist just to aggravate us; they were essential to our evolutionary development and helped ensure our survival as a species. They have purpose and meaning. Emotions help us adapt to problems instinctively, and they serve as instant motivators for our behavior. For example, without the emotion of disgust, we would constantly drink spoiled milk or eat rotten food. Other than that, they color our memories and make them easier to access and serve as a driving force for our future behavior: we try to maintain pleasant emotions and avoid unpleasant ones. This doesn’t mean bottling them up and pretending they don’t exist, but rather trying not to get into too many situations that might give rise to them: we felt disgusted while tasting spoiled milk, so we try very hard to avoid feeling that emotion ever again . Of course, it is impossible to avoid all unpleasant emotions as life is full of loss, problems, downfalls, and missed opportunities, so the key is to understand the reason why we’re feeling a certain way and learn how to deal with those feelings.
Other than their function in aiding our survival as species and helping us adapt to new situations, emotions play a huge role in our communication with others. As we interact with other people, emotions serve as signals for how we are feeling, what our intentions are, the relationship we have with the person we’re talking to, and so on. By being this signal, they evoke reactions from others which, in turn, serve as triggers for behavior .
Culture, of course, has always played a huge part in how these functions of emotions are manifested . We still hear people saying how boys shouldn’t cry or how girls should never show anger. These tired old sayings are perfect examples of stereotyping but they also show us how our culture influences our emotional expression and decides which emotions are ideal to have and which aren’t. It might sound as if we are slaves to our cultural background and that isn’t far from the truth but this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. We couldn’t live in groups without any norms and expectations; the problem is when those expectations become extreme and harmful. For instance, it wouldn’t be possible to live in harmony in a world where everyone expressed their anger in destructive ways, going around vandalizing their neighborhoods but expecting people never to express or even feel anger at all is also harmful and has serious consequences for each one of us.
NEGATIVE CAN BE POSITIVE
When learning mathematics, children find the “two negatives make a positive” concept useful. With emotions, you don’t even need two negatives to make something useful. Just as negative numbers are also real numbers, “negative” emotions are real emotions and it is not only acceptable but natural, to feel them . Therefore, we need to learn how to embrace these unpleasant emotions as a natural and vital part of human experience. In fact, the classification of emotions as positive and negative is completely unnecessary and misleading. Emotions can be useful or not, but there is no reason to divide them into those “good to have” and those we should avoid at all cost.
How exactly are unpleasant emotions natural and useful when they not only make us feel bad but also make others look at us in a different light? Firstly, if we stripped our lives of any unpleasant emotion, we would be basically canceling out a big part of our emotional spectrum. If you think: “Oh well, I don’t mind canceling something out as long as it makes me feel good”, think again. It is practically impossible to live without any distress, so when we think we’re canceling emotions out we are more likely just suppressing them, and it has been proven that when we conceal distress we feel emotionally worse in the long run and end up being less effective and productive . Conversely, accepting and acknowledging the intricacy and complexity of our emotions can prove to be a path to good mental health .
So far we’ve established that unpleasant emotions are a natural part of human experience and had an important evolutionary function, but you may still be wondering how useful they are now. It is important to understand that unpleasant emotions coexist with pleasant ones, and both serve as signals of where we are in life and where we should be headed . They are also the principal motivators for change. If we work hard enough to suppress these emotions, we’ll never do anything to rectify the very situation that is causing our dissatisfaction, because we rationalize “why to mess with a winning formula?” or we are actually too scared to change the status quo . This doesn’t only apply to individuals – emotions can be incentives for much bigger changes. Just think of all the people protesting around the world because of various injustices and how they probably felt before they decided to take action.
There are also more specific ways in which unpleasant emotions can be useful. For instance, anxiety can make us problem-solve more quickly in situations where there is a risk of danger and guilt can make us more responsible and help build our moral values . Of course, the key is not to get too carried away with these emotions, since that is when they can become unhealthy. The same goes for sadness: it is natural to feel sad about all sorts of things or to grieve after a loss, but it is when sadness becomes a permanent state of mind without any apparent cause, that it can become harmful.
WHAT TO DO WITH ALL THESE FEELINGS
Instead of always bottling up and trying to ignore unpleasant feelings, it would be smart to first try to acknowledge how you feel without trying to rectify things instantly and stay positive. This isn’t only a useful way to evaluate where you are emotionally, but it will prevent those unpleasant emotions from intensifying. Trying to suppress emotions forcefully can exacerbate and complicate them in the long run . While working on this step, keep in mind that these feelings are natural and nothing to be ashamed of.
While being aware of unpleasant emotions is a great start and it is sometimes enough to acknowledge it and let it pass, it is also important not to fall into the trap of dwelling on these feelings and drowning in those thoughts without trying to solve the cause of the problem . In order to detangle your emotions, it can be helpful to start journaling. It’s a great way to self-reflect and gain some insight into your problem from a different perspective, as things often seem different when they are put down on paper . Another way to shift your perspective is by confiding in someone else, whether it be your partner or a close friend.
If you still feel down and aren’t sure how to deal with your emotions or the circumstances that are causing them, keep in mind that there is no shame in asking for professional help and that by doing so you are actually helping yourself and making a huge step in the right direction. Talking with someone we trust can help us learn how to acknowledge and express all of our emotions without feeling like the world around us is crumbling and it can be a great way to learn how to cope with all our emotions, as we’ve learned it is impossible to avoid them altogether.
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- Hwang, H. & Matsumoto, D. (2017). Functions of Emotions. In R. Biswas-Diener & E. Diener (Eds), Noba textbook series: Psychology. Champaign, IL: DEF publishers. DOI:nobaproject.com
- Newcomer, L. (March 27, 2015). Why Positive Thinking Doesn’t Always Work.
- Rodriguez, T. (May 1, 2013). Negative Emotions Are Key to Well-Being.
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