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Negative emotions - what are they for?

Updated: Jan 11

It's everywhere. From social media to self-help books and films, we're surrounded by pressure to be positive. From picture-perfect influencers sharing their life of endless holidays in idyllic locations, to unsolicited advice from successful entrepreneurs on how to silence our negativity, we're actively encouraged to ignore negative emotions. But have you ever wondered why, if positivity is the crock of gold at the end of the rainbow we're all chasing after, why so many of us are anxious, depressed and stressed to the eyeballs?

In dismantling 'toxic positivity', therapist Whitney Goodman shares research and real-life examples in her book of the same name that reveal how damaging it can be to ourselves as well as our relationships.

So, which emotions are we shying away from - and why?

According to the Oxford Dictionary FEAR is 'an unpleasant emotion caused by the threat of danger, pain or harm'. On the face of it, if it's unpleasant to experience, it makes sense to avoid it. But, what would happen if we started to pay attention to what it's trying to communicate to us? If it helps to protect us from harm, why wouldn't we listen to it? Wouldn't a healthy amount of fear ensure that we didn't get into situations or relationships that might not be in our best interests?

And what about ANGER? if we saw it as giving us strength to do what was necessary to take care of ourselves, would we be more accepting of it? Maybe if we learnt to pay attention to it sooner, it wouldn't end up erupting in ways that we struggle to control and we could then express it more moderately?

Another tricky emotion to experience is GUILT. It emerges when we have transgressed a value that's important to us, like being late (when we pride ourselves on being punctual) or forgetting a friend's birthday. Being aware of it draws our attention to what we need to do differently to bring us back into line with our values.

Shame on you!

And what about the one we all really hate to acknowledge, let alone feel - SHAME?

Brené Brown refers to it as "an intensely painful feeling or experience of believing we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging". But if shame's purpose is to give us a sense of humility, to connect us to our vulnerability and to serve as a reminder that we are fallible and accountable for our actions, would we be so wary of it?

The bottom line is that pain in life is unavoidable. There's no doubt that it's really difficult when we're in the middle of it, but if we pay attention to the feelings we're experiencing in the moment rather than ignoring them, maybe they could motivate us to work through our problems, heal from their effects while opening the door to greater authenticity, human connection and personal growth?

Copyright Paula Manning, Kind Minds Counselling 2023

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