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.