The myth of “bad” and “good” emotions


“Do not worry”. We have heard this phrase since childhood from relatives, teachers and outsiders who see our concern. And we get the first instruction on how to deal with negative emotions. Namely, they should be avoided. But why?

Bad good advice

A healthy approach to emotions assumes that they are all important for peace of mind. Emotions are beacons that give a signal: it is dangerous here, it is comfortable there, you can make friends with this person, and even better beware. Learning to be aware of them is so important that it is even strange why the school has not yet introduced a course on emotional literacy.

What exactly is this advice – “don’t worry” bad? We pronounce it with good intentions. We want to help. In fact, such help only takes a person away from understanding himself. Belief in the magic power of “don’t worry” is based on the idea that some emotions are unambiguously negative and should not be experienced.

You can experience several conflicting emotions at the same time, and this is not a reason to doubt your mental health.

Psychologist Peter Breggin, in Guilt, Shame, and Anxiety, teaches us to ignore what he calls “negative emotions”. As a psychiatrist, Breggin regularly sees people who blame themselves for everything, suffer from shame and worry forever.

Of course he wants to help them. This is a completely human desire. But, trying to throw out the water (negative impact), Breggin throws out the child, that is, the experiences themselves.

Garbage in, garbage out

When we divide emotions into strictly positive (and therefore desirable) and negative (unwanted), we find ourselves in a situation that programmers call “Garbage in, Garbage Out” (GIGO for short). If you write the wrong line of code into the program, it will either not work or it will throw errors.

The trash in, trash out situation occurs when we internalize several misconceptions about emotions. If you have them, you are more likely to be confused about your feelings and lack emotional competence.

1. The myth of the valence of emotions: when we imagine each feeling in terms of whether it is pleasant or unpleasant, whether it is desirable for us or not.

2. Limitations in working with emotions: when we believe that feelings need to be either suppressed or expressed. We do not know how to explore the feeling that engulfs us, and strive to quickly get rid of it.

3. Disregard for nuances: when we do not understand that each emotion has many gradations of intensity. If we feel a little annoyed at a new job, this does not mean that we made the wrong choice and should immediately quit.

4. Simplification: when we are not aware that several emotions can be experienced at the same time, they can be contradictory, and this is not a reason to doubt our mental health.

The myth of the valence of emotions

Emotions are the response of the psyche to external and internal stimuli. By themselves, they are neither bad nor good. They simply perform a certain function that is essential for survival. In the modern world, we usually do not have to fight for life in the literal sense, and we try to take inappropriate emotions under control. But some go further, trying to completely eliminate from life that which brings unpleasant sensations.

By decomposing emotions into negative and positive, we artificially separate our reactions from the context in which they appeared. It doesn’t matter why we are upset, it is important that it means that at dinner we will have a “sour” look.

When we try to drown out emotions, we don’t get rid of them. We train ourselves not to listen to intuition.

In the business environment, expressions of feelings that are associated with success are especially appreciated: inspiration, confidence, calmness. On the contrary, sadness, anxiety and fear are considered signs of failure.

The black-and-white approach to emotions suggests that “negative” ones need to be fought (suppressing them or, conversely, letting them flow out), and “positive” ones should be cultivated in oneself or, at worst, portrayed. But as a result, this is what leads to a psychotherapist’s office: we cannot withstand the burden of suppressed feelings and cannot figure out what we really feel.

Empathic approach

Belief in good and bad emotions makes it difficult to realize their value. For example, healthy fear prevents us from exposing ourselves to unnecessary risks. Anxiety about health can prompt you to give up junk food and go in for sports. Anger helps you assert your rights, and shame helps you manage your behavior and correlate your desires with the desires of others.

By trying to evoke emotions in ourselves for no reason, we disrupt their natural regulation. For example, a girl is going to get married, but doubts that she loves her chosen one and will love him in the future. However, she persuades herself: “He carries me in his arms. I should be happy. All this is nonsense. ” When we try to drown out emotions, we don’t get rid of them. We train ourselves not to listen to intuition and not try to act in accordance with it.

An empathic approach means that we accept the emotion and try to understand in what context it originated. Does it apply to the situation you are in now? Are you worried, upset, or frightened by something? Why do you feel this way? Is this feeling similar to what you’ve already experienced? By asking ourselves questions, we can gain a deeper understanding of our experiences and make them work for us.

About the expert: Karla McLaren is a social researcher, creator of the theory of Dynamic Emotional Integration, author of The Art of Empathy: How to Use Your Most Important Life Skill.

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