Negative Emotions are Healthy

by Haider on March 30, 2009 · 12 comments

in Emotions

A lot of personal growth advice seems to be based on the assumption that positive emotions (happiness, joy, excitement, etc.) are good and should always be experienced, no matter what circumstances you are living in; and negative emotions (sadness, anxiety, depression, etc.) are evil, harmful and should never be experienced, no matter what your circumstances are.

I happen to disagree. Strongly disagree.

This attitude towards emotions expresses a deep misunderstanding of the role emotions are meant to play in our lives and fails to appreciate the importance of negative emotions in our personal growth.

The Role of Emotions

I’ve seen several personal growth “experts” giving their readers tips on how to be happy, and they boast that you can be happy without a reason to be happy! They try to get people to shrug off negative emotions by shifting their focus towards positive aspects in their lives. They think that they are doing their readers a favor by helping them experience positive emotions and ridding them of negative emotions.

But the question we need to ask is: Why do human beings have the capacity to experience negative emotions?

To help understand the purpose behind negative emotions, we can consider the role of pain in our lives.

Many people consider pain a bad thing, in and of itself. However, pain is a good thing for human beings. It helps keep us alive and our body parts intact and properly functioning. People who lack pain sensors can cause damage to their bodies, without even realizing it!

Pain is a message that tells you that there’s something wrong in your body… and you need to do something!

The pain you experience isn’t the problem. It tells you that you have a problem. Without this message, your problem will go unnoticed, and if it’s neglected, it can cause considerable damage to your body.

Emotions play a similar role. Positive emotions tell you that you’re doing something good and you should continue to do more of it, and negative emotions tell you you’re doing something bad (or avoiding something good) and you need to take action to correct it. Therefore, both positive and negative emotions are important! They convey different messages but with the same intention: To get you to take action for your own well-being.

When you try to silence negative emotions, you’re not doing yourself a favor. You are, in fact, harming yourself. You are shooting the messenger because you don’t like what it’s telling you. You don’t want to take the actions that will support your life. You think that by ignoring the message the problem will go away. If you stick your head in the ground, then you’ll be safe.

But that’s never the right approach to take in life. You need to listen to what the message is, and look for where the problem lies in order to address it properly.

It’s Not Always Healthy to Be Happy

If you are consistently acting and thinking in ways that support your life, then it’s natural to consistently feel happy. However, you shouldn’t try to feel happy by evading the issues you need to deal with. Such happiness is not healthy. It’s an unnatural way to condition your emotions, which will not support you in your life. In the same way that pain-killers can work to numb the pain, happiness that overlooks problems without allowing you to properly deal with them numbs your consciousness, which will allow your problems to grow.

Negative Emotions Help You Grow

Since negative emotions tell you there’s something wrong you need to correct, you should never adjust to negative emotions and feel comfortable experiencing them. Negative emotions tell you that there’s something you need to do for the message to go away. Otherwise, you’re harming yourself and your body will punish you for not properly taking care of it (it doesn’t really want to punish you, but that’s how it feels when it’s trying to tell you something that you don’t want to hear).

While physical pain is more accurate in pin-pointing where the problem lies, negative emotions can sometimes be difficult to decipher. They can tell you that you need to think differently or you need to act differently to move your life forward.

The questions you need to ask yourself, when experiencing negative emotions, are: Why am I experiencing these emotions (i.e. what is the problem my emotions are trying to tell me about)? And what can I do to solve the problem?

You need to shift your focus from the emotions themselves, to the problem you need to tackle. Negative emotions aren’t the problem. They simply point to the problem.

By using negative emotions as sensors for what you need to do, they help you to take the right actions and to move your life forward. That’s one of the best opportunities to grow in life, which you will deprive yourself of if you try to ignore negative emotions in any shape or form.

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{ 12 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Bill March 30, 2009 at 6:26 pm

Insightful post. This seems commonsense to me, but evidently not to most. I think your assessment of what I call the “be happy” syndrome is right.

2 Haider March 31, 2009 at 12:34 am

Bill, thanks for stopping by!

I’m actually shocked by some of the common ideas floating around the personal growth community that have absolutely no basis in reality!

I’ll be writing several more blog posts to deal with these ideas, since they are very damaging to personal growth, even though people go down with them with a smile on their faces! :P

3 Masouma March 31, 2009 at 8:32 am

Hello Haider,

I fully support your article. You present a very valuable lesson; one that I had to learn the hard way! I tried the ‘be happy’ prescription some years ago, and now when I look back I can see how I was holding myself back by denying the unhappiness underneath it all. Like you said, I was going down ‘with a smile on my face’ ! Hence, the relief I felt the first time I released my unhappy emotion, and when I started inquiring my emotions instead of judging them.

Looking forward to more good stuff :)

4 Haider March 31, 2009 at 10:05 pm

Hi Masouma,

I fully support your comment! :D

I think the greatest liberation we can experience is by acknowledging the truth about ourselves and our emotions.

I hope I can live up to your expectations. :)

5 Masouma April 1, 2009 at 12:15 pm

In that case, it would be nice to have your advice in a hardcopy format ;) so start compiling your info into a book, and I will be on the lookout for it at Virgin!

PS and I will be available for any editing/formatting tasks, in return for a signed copy!

6 Haider April 1, 2009 at 6:55 pm

Masouma, I’m currently working on a mini-ebook. I might need your editing/formatting skills, so I have to figure out a way to get it digitally signed :P

7 Masouma April 2, 2009 at 8:29 am

An ebook! That’s wonderful news! Yalla, bring it on… it’ll be my pleasure to give back in any way… in the meanwhile I’ll let you try to figure out the digital signature :P Keep me posted.

BTW, I was @ Virgins Marina last night and the place is swamped with personal/spiritual growth books! 2-3 tables full of these books! You’re in a booming business :) And, in these times, people need the motivation, guidance, assurance… So, going back to the book, you should seriously start thinking about it as well. I may have some ideas on how to keep your costs low, etc.

8 Haider April 2, 2009 at 3:19 pm

Yes, I’m in a very popular niche, but this is one of the problems I find. A lot of the advice being presented isn’t contributing to our growth, but inhibiting it.

The ebook covers what personal growth is really about and why we’re not getting the results we want from the literature we’ve been reading…

I’ll definitely keep you posted, and I’ll appreciate any feedback you can give. :D

9 Tom Maurer April 10, 2009 at 3:53 am

Haider,

Great post, I couldn’t agree more.

Its comforting to know when we are in a bad spot that if we look for the lesson in the negativity we are experiencing then we will grow and the negativity will pass.

I’d love to be in a position where I was so mentally healthy that I didn’t emit any negativity. But of course I’m not. I experience negativity all the time but you are right, the way to move forward isn’t to bury it but to embrace it and learn from it.

10 Haider April 11, 2009 at 1:27 am

Dear Tom,

People who are mentally healthy can still experience negativity. It’s part of their mental health. But they would only use the negativity to recognize the things in their life that need their attention. At times, you can experience negativity simply because there’s a question you need to pose to yourself and find an answer for. That’s what the negativity is trying to tell you.

Where negativity becomes a problem is when you dwell on it, or when it becomes the focus. It’s the “mistaking the sign-post for the destination” problem.

I wish you all the best, and hope you’ll find more posts useful. :D

11 Alistair May 13, 2009 at 3:56 pm

I remember hearing a long time ago, something to the effect ‘there is no joy without sorrow’. While I don’t wish sorrow on anyone, bad feelings & experiences help you to appreciate the good feelings and experiences all the more, and to appreciate their true value.

12 Haider May 14, 2009 at 8:52 am

Dear Alistair,

I definitely agree with you on that one. And it’s also important to accept that sorrow can sometimes be the most suitable response to a situation. Negative emotions are only bad when they’re not appropriate and in good measure. That’s when they begin working against us instead of for us.

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