Negative Emotions Can Drive Positive Change

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Negative Emotions Can Be Good for Creating Positive Change

No one really wants to feel angry, sad, guilty, anxious, envious or lonely. But let’s face it – most of us feel one or more of those emotions occasionally or even frequently.

Now psychologists are suggesting that these negative emotions can be what nudges us to make positive changes in our lives.

If we pay attention to these negative feelings, they can help us identify what’s wrong in our life – what bothers us, what annoys us, what makes us angry, says Elizabeth Bernstein in an August 2016 article, “Why You Need Negative Feelings” in the Wall Street Journal. By identifying these negative emotions and the situations that cause them, we can be motivated to make changes that make our lives more harmonious.

Negative Emotions that Signal Depression

Not all negative emotions have the potential to motivate people to make positive change. Psychologists warn us to be alert for “empty” emotions in ourselves, friends or family. These are emotions like hopelessness, worthlessness or despair that are not likely to have the transformative energy to help a people change their lives. These emotions may be a sign of depression.

If you or someone you care about experiences these “empty” emotions for more than two weeks, it’s a red flag and it’s important to seek the help of a professional counselor.

Identifying the Emotions that Can Be Transformed

Emotions like anger or loneliness are generally based in reality. Something happened to cause these emotions. For instance, if your boss hired someone less qualified for a job you wanted, you’re likely to be angry at him. Or if an elderly person loses a spouse to a devastating illness, after the grief is likely to come loneliness. These types of emotions are a natural reaction to the troubles that come with being human.

So the first step is to reflect on the situation that likely caused the emotion. Sometimes we are in denial or just don’t quite grasp a combination of factors that triggered the emotion. Often a trusted friend or family member can help, because they know you and the situations you have faced
Sometimes it may be difficult to separate anger from jealousy or sadness from loneliness. In those situations, when it’s difficult to put your finger on the specific emotion, it can be helpful to talk with a trained mental health professional to sort through some of the confusion and zero in on just which emotion is surfacing.

Here’s How to Label the Feeling

Name the emotion with one word. For instance, say to yourself, “I’m angry” or “I’m sad.”

One way to help pinpoint the specific emotion is to tune into your breathing for five or 10 breaths. Clinical social worker Mariel Diaz, who works in San Diego, suggests listening to your body during this breathing time. Is your heart racing? You’re anxious. Do you have a heavy feeling in your chest? You’re probably feeling sad. Is your jaw tense? That’s a sign of anger.

If you’re having trouble recognizing exactly what you’re feeling, tune into your body, breathing deeply for five to 10 breaths, says Mariel Diaz, a licensed clinical social worker in San Diego. Is your heart racing? You’re likely anxious. Do you have a heavy feeling in your chest? You’re probably sad. Does your jaw feel tense? That is a sign of anger.

The trick is to be able to identify the emotion correctly, then figure out what change in your behavior will alleviate it. The goal isn’t to banish the feeling but to harness it for positive transformation.

Here is how you do that:

Label the Feeling

Name the emotion with one word. Tell yourself: “I’m angry.” Or “I’m sad.”

If you’re having trouble recognizing exactly what you’re feeling, tune into your body, breathing deeply for five to 10 breaths, says Mariel Diaz, a licensed clinical social worker in San Diego. Is your heart racing? You’re likely anxious. Do you have a heavy feeling in your chest? You’re probably sad. Does your jaw feel tense? That is a sign of anger.

Naming and Confronting the Negative Emotion

Unlike the empty emotions, these are often based in reality; something has happened to make you feel this way. And they are meant to be warnings that we need to protect ourselves from bad behavior, either our own or someone else’s.

The trick is to be able to identify the emotion correctly, then figure out what change in your behavior will alleviate it. The goal isn’t to banish the feeling but to harness it for positive transformation.

Not all negative emotions have a good side. Feelings such as hopelessness, worthlessness or despair—psychologists call these “empty” emotions—typically signal depression and are pretty much impossible to turn to your advantage. If you have these feelings and they persist more than two weeks, you should seek professional help, experts say.

If we pay attention to them, they can help us identify what is wrong in our life and motivate us to seek change. Research even shows that people who have negative thoughts along with positive ones are healthier.

References:

Bernstein, Elizabeth, “Why You Need Negative Feelings,” Wall Street Journal, Aug. 22, 2016.

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