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Apr 27

What’s a negative emotion?

I’m always struck by people’s judgements surrounding emotions.  For instance many people would classify the following emotions as “negative”:

  • Anger
  • Sadness
  • Frustration
  • Doubt
  • Grief
  • Envy
  • and so on

To my thinking there is really no such thing as a negative emotion and here are my thoughts on that subject.

What is emotion?

In many of my trainings we invariably talk about emotion and I like to reframe it as such:

e-motion

Where “e” stands for energy.  An example of this is in the immortal words of PIL “Anger is an Energy”. This energy is constantly in motion, unless its not in which case it may be stored somewhere.  I know that for me a lot of my emotion is stored in my gut as my way of dealing with uncomfortable emotions is to comfort eat.  Yes people, I may be a coach (and a damn good one) but I am still a work in progress and I feel that I am honest enough to admit that there are still some emotions for me that are uncomfortable to deal with.

Uncomfortable rather than negative

So here to me is the crux of the matter.  To my mind it’s not that emotions are either positive or negative; it’s the fact that some emotions are more comfortable to tolerate than others.  I mean who doesn’t prefer or choose happiness over sadness, joy over grief, contentment over frustration?  Also is it not more comfortable for us to deal with other peoples “positive” emotions rather than putting up with their “negative” emotions.

Emotions are contagious

If we continually find ourselves in the company of others who seem to be perpetually stuck in their negative emotions we find this a drain on our own energy and will make polite excuses to avoid their company.  Unless of course we are authentic enough to tell people the reason that we no longer wish to be in their company is because of the effect that their emotions have on us.

Emotions are addictive

Some years ago I watch a movie called “What the Bleep do we know?”.  In that film it was suggested that over time we become addicted to our emotions, which makes a lot of sense to me.  Our emotions trigger chemicals  in our body and these chemicals are no different to the chemicals that are contained in addictive substances such as alcohol, nicotine, sugar and heroin.    (Don’t take my word for it go ahead and watch the movie where scientists who are renowned in their field explain how all this happens – Candice Pert for example. )  Now as you read this you might say “see – some emotions are negative!!!”  But we can just as easily get addicted to “positive” emotions as well as the “negative” ones.

So what is the point that I am making here?  Well one point is that we may be too quick to judge the emotion as good or bad, negative or positive; but in actuality it’s the consequences of the emotion is the thing that we have trouble with. Take for example the emotion of anger (its no accident that I put it at the top of my list at the start of this article).  This is a perfectly natural emotion and a perfectly natural response for a functioning adult (or child) to have. However, as children many of us are told that we are bad when we express our anger.  My belief is that our care-givers find it difficult to deal with an angry child and feel that it is appropriate to train them out of being angry.  We may then grow up believing that anger is bad or wrong or negative, but actually it is a natural response.  Not only is it natural it can be quite productive.  I’m sure that you can think of some times when anger has driven you to take some positive action to change circumstances that you no longer find appropriate.  The same reasoning can be applied to other emotions such as frustration, doubt, envy and so on.  So how can we judge an emotion as negative if this energy source was one that inspired us to make important changes in our life.  Yes I know that it would be altogether more fulfilling and meaningful if love and compassion could be our inspiring energies, but life is not a Disney film and we are not all walking embodiments of Jesus, the Buddha or Mohammad (unless you are – in which case contact me because I could do with the mentoring ;0) ).

Emotions are expressions

Humans are by their very nature expressive beings and we express through our thoughts, behaviours and feelings.  The problem is we tend to suppress these expressions of our nature that we fear because we think other people will judge us unfavourably. This suppression harms us in the long run and negatively impacts us in ways that I don’t have time or space to go into here.

So our challenge is to firstly take ownership for our emotions, because they are natural expressions of our experience.  Once we own them, we can then go about expressing them in healthy and meaningful ways.  For me writing and journaling about them is meaningful.  Telling others how I’m really feeling (if I trust them or care for them enough) is also important and meaningful.  I am learning that part of the human condition is to emote and to then express rather than suppress – it’s a cheaper form of therapy and I don’t become dependent on other chemicals to help me avoid my uncomfortable emotions.

Conclusion

So in conclusion, having emotions is part of being human and I feel that it’s just not productive or useful to label them as positive or negative; they just are what they are.  Its a function of emotionally healthy adults to be able to deal with the emotions that show up for them every day, but yet a great number of adults choose unhealthy ways to deal with them – myself included.  It is important that rather than converting them into more comfortable ones to deal with (which is one way of avoiding emotions) or suppressing them altogether that we express them in healthy ways.

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About the author

Mark Buchan

Mark is an Agile Consultant and Executive Coach who specialises in working with leadership teams when they are transforming their organisation to a more Agile way of delivery.

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