Recently the New York Times published an article, “Lean into Negative Emotions. It’s the Healthy Thing to Do.” It spoke to current research, suggesting that our perspective on our emotions can substantially affect our mental health. I wasn’t surprised to see this given the plethora of patients I treat who either judge themselves negatively for having negative emotions, demonize the emotions themselves, and/or feel shameful and blameful for allowing their thoughts and feelings to guide their behavior.
Emotions, especially negative ones, can get a bad rap. Many individuals weren’t taught how to manage them, respond to them in others, or their utility. We receive clear societal messages about how “unhealthy,” “unwelcoming,” and “toxic” these emotions are. We’re advised and encouraged about ways to distract from, rid ourselves of, and transform our uncomfortable emotions. We are left with the impression that they are dangerous, a nuisance, and that we should avoid them like the plague.
We are judged based on our emotionality. Individuals can be referred to as “overly” emotional or “too” sensitive because they readily emote. Sentiments from family members and friends such as “get over it” or “stop thinking that way” can be expressed as a means to be helpful but can be experienced as invalidating and insensitive. All reinforce the need to directly distance from ourselves and our emotions.
It’s no wonder we have misguided and distorted perceptions about our own emotions and those of others. They are perceived as unwanted, a sign of personal weakness, and being out of control. That doesn’t lend to us being open to doing the healthier thing─leaning into, rather than away from our negative emotions.
In my TED Talk on “Circumventing Emotional Avoidance” and my book ACE Your Life: Unleash Your Best Self and Live the Life You Want, the barriers as to what leads us to distance from our uncomfortable emotions are indicated as well as evidence to support the critical need to lean into and embrace those emotions. Included are also practical ways to initiate self-acceptance and self-compassion by being with all of our emotions so that we’re living a meaningful intentioned life.
What You Need to Know About Your Emotions
You are not your emotions. Our mind incessantly tries to guide and protect us, so much so that it often convinces us that thoughts are facts and we have an indisputable reason to be sad, frustrated, anxious, angry or any of the whole array of feelings that surface. It takes its role very seriously. To protect us, it often judges, overreacts or becomes overprotective, hypervigilant, or defensive, even when not prompted or welcomed.
Our mind constantly buzzes and plays mind games, seemingly independent of us. This often puts us in a loop of struggling with our thoughts while having thoughts about our thoughts, thoughts about our feelings, feelings about our thoughts, and feelings about our feelings. Your thoughts impact your perceptions and emotions and how you inevitably feel.
During moments of stress or intense emotionality, your brain and body are doing exactly what they’re designed to do, protect you from perceived threat, danger, and discomfort. Your sympathetic nervous system, one of the two main divisions of the autonomic nervous system, mobilizes and activates the body’s flight, fright, or freeze response. This is an essential response when we’re in real threat or danger; it can be misguided and counterproductive when we’re not.
Your emotions aren’t dangerous or bad for you. While they may sometimes feel uncomfortable somatically in your body (e.g., tightness in your chest, jitteriness or restlessness, nausea/stomach pain, etc.), they can’t hurt you directly unless you don’t manage them over time, which can evolve into prolonged chronic stress.
Your emotions don’t define you by any means. You can have a mean or aggressive thought or feeling and not be a mean or aggressive person. Your thoughts and feelings don’t define who you fundamentally are. They represent energy in your mind and body at a given moment. They connect you with your values and what’s truly important to you. This is valuable information.
Emotions are beneficial. At times, we all struggle with irrational and unwanted thoughts we wish we could control or never have to begin with. Those very thoughts often lead to negative feelings. Trying to make uncomfortable thoughts go away is exhausting and takes up a lot of brain space. No matter the effort, it doesn’t work.
We want to control our thoughts because they affect how we feel. We may beat ourselves up for having uncomfortable thoughts, and we try desperately to deny, avoid, disregard, or attempt to get rid of these thoughts and feelings. We often find ourselves in a loop of wanting so desperately to get rid of the discomfort brought on by the emotions that we inadvertently intensify and exacerbate the discomfort because of the struggle.
When you have difficult or uncomfortable thoughts and feelings, growth happens by leaving your comfort zone and fully experiencing whatever shows up. Your nervous system gets accustomed to fear, hurt, and other uncomfortable feelings. No matter how hard the attempt to push them away, it gradually copes and becomes less inclined to reject, disregard, and try to eliminate those that appear.
There’s great value in learning how to tolerate frustration and just be with all feelings, especially the difficult and uncomfortable ones. This leads to self-empowerment, self-growth, and personal development.
Emotions inform your behavior. Your sadness can show you the depths of your feelings and care for yourself or others, or your anger can show you what you’re passionate about, where your boundaries lie, and what your belief system is. Our feelings can be overemphasized and overrated.
Emotions inform us, but our values inevitably guide our actions and decision-making. Our thoughts and feelings can sometimes be irrational, overreactive, and misguided. Because of the executive protector nature of our mind, our overactivated amygdala, past experiences, and how we were socialized, among other things, we know better than to let our emotions dictate our behavior solely.
It’s essential to identify your core values. This is what you treasure in life and drives your behaviors. It is what you would be doing if nobody were watching. Our values are our action guide. Examples include family, self-respect, creativity, and integrity. Our values, rather than our emotions, provide our life direction and help us persist through life’s challenges.
Allow All of Your Emotions to Surface
John Forsyth thoughtfully explained, WAFs [worries, anxieties, and fears], along with other emotional pain and hurt, are not your enemies. They are your teachers. Think about that for a moment. Without experiencing disappointment, you’d never learn patience. You’d never learn kindness and compassion without the hurt and frustration you receive from others. Without exposure to new information, you’d never learn anything new. Without fear, you’d never learn courage and how to be kind to yourself. Even getting sick occasionally has an important purpose—strengthening your immune system and helping you appreciate good health.
By valuing your negative and uncomfortable emotions and increasing your willingness to lean into them, you’re giving yourself a better chance at learning to manage and cope with them in yourself and others. You’ll be proactive in increasing your confidence and allowing your mind to acclimate to the idea that you’re perfectly safe, no matter how uncomfortable.
Here is a Reducing Stress and Inner Strength Guided Meditation l lead to open yourself to accept all your emotions. Please subscribe to my YouTube channel for more interviews and guided meditations.
Forsythe, J. (2016). The Mindfulness and Acceptance Workbook for Anxiety: A Guide to Breaking Free from Anxiety, Phobias, and Worry Using Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (A New Harbinger Self-Help Workbook).
Maidenberg, M. (2022). ACE Your Life: Unleash Your Best Self and Live the Life You Want. Morgan James Publishing.
Blog as published in Psychology Today.