The average person tends to classify emotions as either positive or negative. I even hear psychologist, coaches, and others in the various helping professions refer to them in this manner as well. However, emotions are chemicals called neuropeptides that carry energy and information throughout the body and its different systems.
These processes have evolved over millennia for survival purposes and adaptive ways to meet ones emotional, psychological, and relational needs. We tend to define emotions that are painful or challenging to regulate as NEGATIVE and the ones that induce pleasurable states as POSITIVE.
Our Reflective Reaction To Pain
Not only is this inaccurate and short-sighted, but it tends to decrease motivation to allow ourselves to feel or master these uncomfortable emotional states. This is not a shortcoming on our part but part of our survival instinct. Pain is often a signal there is a threat of some sort, such as disease or potential damage to our physical integrity, i.e., burning your hand or breaking a bone.
If something is painful, our reflexive action is to get away from it. We are not typically wired to move towards pain. But in the case of non-pleasurable emotions, there is value to learning how to lean into them. Let me give you a few examples to put this in context. Many of my clients initially enter therapy to make a decision on whether to remain or leave a current relationship. Others have already made the choice to leave but have been unable to follow through on their decision.
The Danger of Avoidance
Being in a neglectful, abusive or dissatisfying relationship is painful. Individuals have made numerous attempts to get their partner to terminate their hurtful or abandoning behavior but to no avail. This often results in people feeling “stuck”. It’s painful to stay in the relationship, but it also opens up another set of painful circumstances if they make the choice to leave.
It is impossible to remain in this painful state indefinitely. What the average person does is find some way to numb or escape. Perhaps, it is through drugs or alcohol. Others bury themselves in work or child rearing. Some compulsively spend or have extra relational affairs. A certain segment of individuals become engaged in an insidious psychological defense known as, “Denial through Fantasy.”
Denial Leads to More Pain
The reason I say this defense is so insidious is because you don’t know you are in it. Denial is an unconscious defense, so you cannot realize you are actually in denial. You can see what is occurring so you don’t believe you’re in denial, but you don’t feel the full reality of what is going on until it is often too late.
In a relational context, “Denial Through Fantasy” is when you keep relating to your partner as they could be or occasionally are. The latter is more challenging because their potential as a partner does manifest at times so you KNOW it’s in there. However, they do not express these qualities sufficiently to be the partner you need and deserve. I have seen clients stuck in this defense for years and decades only to finally come to the realization their partner will never change into who they desire.
This results in an overwhelming amount of grief that comes crashing through at the years or decades wasted waiting for their partner to change. If they had felt the full level of pain of what it was like to be neglected or abused in their relationship, they would not have been able to endure the level of pain and left years earlier.
Emotions = Energy + Information
In this instance, the NEGATIVE emotions related to feeling unfulfilled and alone were their ally and resource to make POSITIVE changes for their life. Again, emotions are energy and information. They give us rapid feedback about what is going on around us and the energy to respond to that information.
Going back to the relationship example, the sadness and shame that results from a dissatisfying relationship in your personal or professional life is painful. It will eventually become so distressing you can no longer endure it. This is when you will take action. However, if you numb or avoid this pain for various reasons, you are robbing yourself of your greatest resource to address the situation.
The “Four Horsemen”
What people often refer to as NEGATIVE emotions are the categorical emotions of anger, fear, sadness, and shame. People have referred to these as the ‘“Four Horsemen” in therapy since these are frequently the emotional states individuals most often struggle to manage. There are also additional states, such as feeling unfulfilled or having regret, which are core emotional states that are combinations of various core emotions.
When you come to realize each of these states has value, you will no longer see them as NEGATIVE. I understand if you lack awareness of the importance of each of these states it can be difficult to fight against our innate desire to avoid pain and lean into the discomfort. In my experience, I can explain concepts but they are much more easily absorbed when put into a real life example.
Unpleasant Emotions As A Resource
I’ll use a situation from my own history to illustrate the resource of discontentment. When I graduate from high school, I had aspirations to become very successful financially as an attorney; thank God for unanswered prayers. However, I basically dropped out after my first semester. I was trying to survive and took a job delivering pizza. It didn’t take long for life to in clinical terms “kick my ass”.
As a result, I became very discontent with my life. As each day passed, the lack of fulfillment I was experiencing intensified. However, I didn’t see a path for how to move my life in the direction I desired, so I began numbing my discontent through cannabis. Shortly after smoking, my discontent resolved itself for a few hours until I had to repeat the process.
Negative Is Actually Positive
Now nature evolved this feeling to give me information about the fact things were missing in my life I desired. Moreover, it gave me the energy, albeit uncomfortable, to go and do something about it. By avoiding the feeling I was basically pouring the gas out of my car for a trip I was desperate to go on. I believe a more useful way to classify our emotions are between pleasurable and painful.
If I put my hand on a stove and a pain receptor sends a signal to my brain my physical integrity is under threat this is information I need; pulling my hand off of the burner is POSITIVE for me. I often use the example with my clients of the fire alarm going off in session. I don’t like the sound so I go rip it out of the wall, return to the room, and we both burn alive. That annoying sound was going to save our lives. Would you call that noise POSITIVE or NEGATIVE?
The Challenge of Conflicting Emotions
I know this may all sound a bit nitpicky. Nonetheless, I believe referring to certain emotions as negative increases our tendency to push them away or avoid them. Furthermore, without a sufficient awareness of their adaptive value, it is understandable why we are less than enthusiastic about feeling them fully. In the case of the relationship example, it is even more challenging because there are painful emotions associated with both staying and leaving.
These types of situations are where it can be useful to work with a psychotherapist. Most of us were not given the emotional skills necessary to regulate and effectively navigate the complexity of conflicting emotions. As a result, we have been utilizing emotional defenses that have helped us survive or get through but are now keeping us stuck in life.
What Saved Us Is Now Stopping Us
Not only have these defenses blocked us from accessing the resource our core emotions have evolved to be, but they have also caused a backup of unresolved emotions. As challenging as a current event may be, it becomes even more so when it triggers unprocessed emotional memories from previous similarly themed circumstances. This then necessitates further use of emotional defenses. It becomes a self-reinforcing feedback loop.
Defenses are not bad, but they are situation specific. They are not meant to be the resource for living life but are born out of necessity for adaptive reasons. The problem arises from PARTS of us being stuck in the past without full awareness we are now in the present, so we do what worked then no matter how ineffective the behavior is now.
The Value of Psychotherapy
Psychotherapy provides benefit in two primary ways: It helps you process and resolve past emotions; and offers guidance and support into how to utilize your emotional states to their full potential in the present. Even the dreaded “Four Horsemen” emotions (anger, fear, sadness, shame) have adaptive value.
Core anger fuels assertiveness, gives clarity to a situation, helps you push through fear, goal attainment, and defenses such as false guilt. Healthy fear orients you to a threat that needs responded to or can inhibit reckless, endangering behavior. Sadness in the form of loneliness informs us of the need for connection and motivates us to seek it out. Grief frees us from the past and helps us orient to what really matters in life. And functional shame can guide our behavior to refrain from things that are unhealthy to ourselves and others we care about.
I hope this article has opened your mind somewhat to changing the way you defiance emotions that are not always pleasurable to feel. My aspiration is that you become more educated and motivated to allow yourself to feel these emotional states previously defined as NEGATIVE and use them for the benefit they will bring.
If you would like to learn more about this topic or need assistance for dealing more effectively with your emotions, contact me anytime at 561-468-6464