The other day I was talking to a colleague of mine about a work project. He brought up several things that may make the project flow less than perfectly. After addressing these things he said, “I’m sorry for being so negative.”
I thought nothing of it at the time, but it occurred to me how often we are repentant for having anything but bubbly, happy feelings. When others perceive that we’re down or otherwise in a bad mood, we may hear things like, “Cheer up!” or “It’s not so bad.” The people saying these things are undoubtedly well-intentioned, but research suggests that having these types of negative emotions may serve us well overall.
To clarify, someone who thinks only negative thoughts or who spends all his time complaining or being angry is probably not going to have a greater sense of wellbeing, but a person with a quality mix of positive and negative emotions is better able to accept situations as they are and move forward to make the best of them. Struggling to suppress negative thoughts can have adverse effects. Smiling through situations that are hurtful, stress-inducing, or inherently unpleasant may actually be harmful and not allow full feelings of contentment and joy when the situation actually does warrant it.
We have been trained to consider our wellbeing as the feeling of positive, happy emotions and the lack of negativity and adverse feelings. For most of us, it’s inconceivable that our lives are constantly happy. Hopefully, most of our days are pleasant and we experience highly positive and favorable emotions as a result. On the other hand, simulating these happy emotions when our brains, hearts, and souls are decidedly unhappy can be damaging. It is important to remember that we need to experience a variety of emotions so that we can assess our experiences and, if necessary, make changes to move forward in a better direction the next time. We are constantly learning from our emotions. Perhaps you can recall a time that you were in a situation that caused a great deal of anxiety or fear or anger. This might be a situation you want to change in the future or want to avoid altogether. It is the emotions you experienced during that time that allow you to make sense of things.
An important component of this theory is that we are not taking in emotions in isolation. It is rare that we feel only anger or only happiness. Usually a combination of emotions is present in any given situation. For example, when thinking about your past, you might be sad about certain events that occurred. Maybe you find yourself reflecting on particularly hard times in your life. At the same time you may look at your life now and consider how you’ve improved your circumstances. Maybe you have a successful job and a supportive family. Thus, you may be feeling a little sad about your past, but excited and optimistic about your future. It is these emotional amalgamations that are shaping your wellbeing and emotional health.
We are often taught to avoid pain, but accepting the pain that can sometimes show up in our lives can be a healthier alternative. There are techniques to use when dealing with these situations, such as: journaling your feelings, deep/calm breathing, or visual imagery – where you may imagine yourself floating or in a serene place where these problems have passed. Another technique to consider is the act of being mindful of your situation. This doesn’t simply mean reacting to your circumstances, but is a metacognitive direction. Our anger, sadness, depression, and general feelings of upset in a given situation have little to do with the situation itself, but rather our perception and judgment of it. Taking a mental step back and looking at the situation objectively can help us to both consider the emotions we feel about it as well as allow us to better acknowledge these emotions and deal with them accordingly. Learning how to cope with your emotions is key to mental and emotional wellbeing. This comes not from avoiding negative feelings, but in allowing them to help us learn and move on.