Shunning negative emotions makes it harder to manage them
Do you get uncomfortable when people suggest you might be experiencing emotions you consider immoral like competition, jealousy, fear, insecurity, or anger? Do you ever accuse other people of having “negative emotions” as a way of showing them that they’re in the wrong?
If so, you might consciously or unconsciously subscribe to a popular but outmoded attitude toward emotions that goes something like this:
There are good and bad emotions. To be a good person, work on purging bad emotions. With a little practice, you won’t have them, and then you can act on your emotions because, with a clean heart, they’ll all be good ones.
No one states it as blatantly as that, but that’s the general theme. It has roots in religion(the Seven Deadly Sins are emotions) and lives on in many spiritual practices that elevate emotions like love, compassion, joy, and positivity, while putting down emotions like fear, anger, envy and negativity.
The idea is that if you avidly cultivate righteous emotions and reject sinful emotions you’ll get to where you feel the right emotions and not the wrong ones.
Trouble is, that’s not what happens. If every time you noticing yourself having negative emotions you’re ashamed of them you won’t stop having them, you’ll stop noticing.
And if you strive to arrive at the state where you only have positive emotions, you won’t get there, you’ll just distort your definitions of those positive emotions so that you can claim to have them when you don’t.
An alternative approach works better.
Be tolerant and accepting of any emotion you feel. Don’t be ashamed of any of them. But act on them selectively.
In recent decades, psychologists have come to recognize that emotions are integral to good reasoning. They’re the internal currency by which we learn. Regret, for example, turns our attention to how we might avoid making past mistakes. Pride serves as reinforcement for good decisions we’ve made. Fear alerts us in dangerous situations. Anger motivates us to find ways to stand our ground when we’re being run over.
This might imply that emotions are truth, our omniscient gut that knows even better than reason how best to act. It was possible to get that impression, for example from Malcolm Gladwell’s book Blink: The Power of Thinking By Not Thinking, though a full reading demonstrates that the author didn’t mean that the gut really knows all.
Then there’s another recurrently popular interpretation, not that feelings are omniscient but all-powerful: Your almighty gut creates reality.
We got a dose of it recently with the rise and inevitable fall of The Secret(link is external), with its law of attraction: What you most passionately and positively wish for will automatically come true, though what you most passionately and negatively dread will automatically come true too. This is very much that popular but outmoded approach to emotions, a great way to scare yourself into believing you never have negative emotions. I pity the Secret’s true believer who died of cancer and assumed it was because she feared it, which automatically made her get it.
We all experience the full range of emotions, even those who engage in exhaustive campaigns to purge the negative ones. Given temperamental differences, our emotional mixes will be different, some of us more edgy than others. Yes, emotions are integral to reason but no, they are not gospel. They’re often misaligned to circumstances.
Regret is exactly what we should feel to learn from mistakes unless there’s nothing to learn in which case regret is a mind sucking waste. Pride is exactly what we should feel to reinforce good decisions unless we’re actually making bad decisions, in which case pride makes us jerks. Fear is exactly what we should feel to alert us to real dangers unless the dangers are imagined in which case fear makes us fools. Anger is exactly what we should feel to to stand our ground when we’re being run over unless we’re actually running others over in which case anger makes us tyrants.
So there’s the challenge: We do better when we honestly admit to and embrace all emotions we feel, but not if we believe them all. And this is hard, because if there’s one thing that emotions evolved to be, it’s believable.
I like the saying, “emotions make lousy masters but wonderful servants,” but I think it’s half the story.
What supposedly makes a better master than emotion? Reason. So according to the saying, reason should go down to the hiring pool and hire the emotions that will serve it.
But how do emotions serve? As motivators promoting what reason decides we should do. The relationship between reason and emotion is more circular than the saying lets on.
Reason should be master to emotions that, in turn serve reason by motivating it. Sort of like students picking their teachers, or athletes picking their coaches. I’ve long thought teaching was an ambiguous profession. We’re servants hired by students to be their masters.
To put it in appropriately paradoxical terms, reason is the best master for picking the emotions to be master, motivating reason.
Trying to sort out which emotions to heed or ignore when you’re pretending your not having the negative ones is like trying to manage employees that you can’t admit are on your staff.