Many years have passed since I last lived with my brother. Recently, I decided to go and stay with him for a while. One day we both decided to visit a place in nature that neither of us had been to before. When we got there, it started to rain—while not very heavy, rain was not what either of us had wanted. But even so, a feeling of well-being came over me, and my soul was flooded with joy.
Our emotions. They may be precious to us in certain times, and unpleasant and painful in others. We are often tempted to think that, without negative emotions, everything in our lives would be simpler and better. But negative emotions, just like positive ones, have a role to play. Negative emotions help us to understand the purpose of our lives just as much as positive ones do.
No emotion is generated without a purpose.
The normality of negative emotions
Negative emotions are a normal, healthy, and helpful part of our lives, but giving them too much free rein can be a disadvantage.
Negative emotions can be separated into functional negative emotions and dysfunctional negative emotions.
Alarms can be used to make us aware that we need to go to school, to work, or to take our pills. The onset of dysfunctional negative emotions triggers an alarm in us. When they appear, dysfunctional negative emotions are trying to tell us something. What is important is for us to stop and understand the message they are trying to convey, instead of letting ourselves be guided by the dysfunctional negative emotions themselves. It is also very helpful and useful to learn how to manage, and how to react to, dysfunctional negative emotions. I will come back to this.
When we explore negative emotions, it is important to know that they are not the only source of crucial information that we can access. Before we react to any emotion, we should seek to explore past experiences, past knowledge or relevant memories, our personal values, and the result we desire in any given scenario.
Functional negative emotions versus dysfunctional negative emotions
These are the most common functional negative emotions, mirrored with the most common dysfunctional emotions:
- Jealousy/morbid jealousy
Both functional negative emotions as well as dysfunctional ones stem from the way in which we interpret the situations with which we are faced, and the beliefs we have. Functional negative emotions are born out of rational beliefs, while those that are dysfunctional stem from irrational beliefs. Let’s look at a few examples that can clarify the difference:
Situation 1: Working on a project for school/work (concern vs anxiety)
Rational belief: “With a well-developed plan, organising and researching, and perhaps with some help from someone who is well trained in the field, I will be able to follow through with the project.” Although concern might appear (the functional negative emotion), we can preempt it by planning. We do not have to let it take control, and lead us to anxiety.
Irrational belief: “I am not good at this. I always mess things up. Of course nothing good will come of it.” These thoughts can lead to performance anxiety, and fear of failure. Thus, instead of starting to think, and to set a plan for how to deal with the issue, we allow our emotions to get the best of us, and they set us down a path towards an exaggerated, unwarranted anxiety.
Situation 2: Looking for a job (sadness vs depression)
Rational belief: “I accept that it is possible I may not find a job the first time around. Perhaps neither from the second or third try, but I will at some point find a place where my abilities and competencies are needed. It is important to keep searching. It is okay if I fail initially. It is important to learn from my failure and to not give up.” Perhaps, by not finding a job the first time around, we will be overtaken by sadness. This is normal—it would be inappropriate to be happy given the circumstances. But we do not have to reach a state of depression.
Irrational belief: “I will never find a job. Nobody needs me. There are many others who are better than me. Perhaps I shouldn’t even be trying.” These thoughts could lead to a depressive episode, which would impede us from taking any decisive steps towards solving the problem. It could give us a mental block, even leading us to suffer professionally.
Situation 3: Being treated differently at my workplace when compared to my colleagues (discontent vs anger)
Rational belief: “My colleagues are not to blame. I will talk to my boss and find out his perspective. Perhaps we will find a solution and things will settle.” We could initially feel discontent because of the injustice we perceive. It’s normal—who wouldn’t feel discontent with such a situation? What is there to be done? It’s important to be proactive, to take control of our emotions, to try and find out what is going on, and how we could remedy the situation. There is no reason to blame our colleagues. They are not the ones doing wrong.
Irrational belief: “Something is going on. I’m sure my colleagues are trying to do me in one way or another. I cannot accept it; it is unacceptable. I feel like tearing something down.” In this case we are dealing with anger, which can never help us fix the problem, only aggravate it.
Situation 4: Doing wrong by someone and not realising it at the time (remorse vs guilt)
Rational belief: “It happens, we all make mistakes. I have to see what I can do to set this situation right. I could ask for forgiveness, and if I can change something, I will do it.” We have all felt remorse, but this has helped us solve the situation. We do not have to dig ourselves further into a feeling of guilt.
Irrational belief: “How could I make such a mistake? I am never careful. I messed up. I can’t ask for forgiveness. They will think I did it on purpose. Oh, but my conscience! It is hard for me to bear this. There is no solution to this. If I tell them, things will get worse.” We can end up feeling guilty and continuously ruminating over these thoughts. Of course, we can’t choose how others will react when we ask forgiveness. But, if we do it with sincerity, the rest no longer depends on us.
The usefulness of functional negative emotions
From the previous examples (and there are many more) we observe both the trajectory and the destination towards which functional negative emotions guide us. They can motivate us, give us an impulse, help us overcome an obstacle, come up with a plan, and look for solutions. They help us tilt the scale, and reset the balance. They help us see the situation we are in from a different perspective other than the darkest one. They also help us to “offload” (sometimes there might not be something to solve, we might just need time to integrate a certain event into our life experience). This is where emotional regulation comes in.
Emotional regulation is about how we respond emotionally to certain things. Mauss and co. define it as the deliberate or automatic attempt of a person to influence the emotions they have, and when and how they have them and express them. Therefore, emotions can be modified, which means we can exercise control over them.
The effects of dysfunctional negative emotions
On the other hand, the trajectory we are led on by dysfunctional negative emotions makes us reach certain blockages, accentuates negative feelings, leads to rumination, low self-esteem, and maybe even unhealthy behaviours, which are destructive to us and others. Thus, our physical and mental well-being is affected, and the quality of our lives decreases.
How we should face dysfunctional negative emotions
When dysfunctional negative emotions appear, we need to be aware that they are trying to send us a message to teach us something. Through this process we actually get to know ourselves better, and the way we tend to respond to emotional states. We also learn to interpret the signals our body is sending us, and to admit that these play a certain role.
Acceptance. After we recognise and accept our emotions, we can focus on re-framing the situation and the way in which we react.
Just because a negative emotion sets in, doesn’t mean we have to react in harmful ways to ourselves or to those around us.
Accepting emotions does not mean accepting or excusing harmful behaviours, but raising our awareness of our emotions in order to trigger positive reactions from ourselves.
Visualising the best version of ourselves. Instead of focusing on the negative emotion, or on what we are doing wrong, it is preferable to focus on what we would like our behaviour to be. What does the best version of myself look like in this case? How would they react to this? What would they say? What would they feel? What would they do afterwards? We can do this exercise in our imagination or in writing.
Taking time to practice visualising our best selves can yield very positive results, not only with regards to our current state of mind, but also regarding the way in which we will deal with similar situations in the future.
Learning when we need a break. Sometimes we need to take some time for ourselves. If we are constantly faced with negative emotions and we try to handle them all the time, our bodies will try to let us know that something isn’t right. We need time to analyse our way of thinking, the way in which we interpret certain situations and events which take place in our lives, and the way we react to what is happening to us. And, after this analysis, we need to think of positive coping strategies, which could help us to manage our emotions.
It is not easy to deal with dysfunctional negative emotions. However, if we want a change in our lives, and we are determined to invest resources in achieving that change, we will succeed. And let us not forget the apostle Paul’s famous maxim, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me” (Philippians 4:13). As extra motivation, such a change will bring us closer to God. What could be more wonderful than that?
I cannot end without suggesting that professional help should certainly be used, as and when required.
Mădălina Caraveţeanu holds a B.A in psychology from the Faculty of Psychology and Educational Sciences, University of Bucharest, and a Masters degree in clinical psychology, psychological counselling and psychotherapy, from the Babeș-Bolyai University, Cluj-Napoca.