Do our negative emotions hold the key to living a better life?
The obvious answer may seem to be, no—what could be good about feeling bad?
However, John Sharp, M.D., psychiatrist and author of "The Emotional Calendar," points out that, it's impossible to deny that negative emotions play a significant role in the life of every human being.
"It would be nice if we could live in a world where there's no cause for negative emotions—but that's not the world we live in. The key is figuring out how we can see them as potentially positive and useful," he says.
This is especially important for people in situations where unpleasant emotions like to come out and play with distressing frequency. People taking care of elderly family members are often plagued with damaging feelings due to the day-to-day challenges of being a caregiver.
Embrace the undesirable
No one wants to feel sad, anxious, afraid, or angry. But this attitude can make it difficult to tease out the advantages of being subjected to these emotions.
The first step to finding the positive in the negative, according to Sharp, is not to let the unpleasantness of an emotion deter you from feeling it fully.
Some people try to evade emotional aches by drowning them with food, alcohol and drugs. Others simply try to deny the existence of painful feelings.
In either case, it's never healthy for a person to reject their natural reactions—no matter how disturbing they are. "Trying to avoid pain seems like a good idea, but if you're always running from it, you can make a lot of trouble for yourself," Sharp says.
Advantages of the emotional unholy trinity
Three of the most common negative emotions felt by caregivers are: anxiety, sadness and guilt.
Each is painful in its own way. Yet, when experienced in moderation, each can also convey certain benefits:
- Anxiety: Worry and fear are emotions that spring from one of mankind's most basic instincts: the "fight-or-flight" response. Sweaty palms, racing heartbeat, and rapid breathing are all physical manifestations of this reaction. Even in the modern world, where one no longer has to be on the lookout for lion attacks, anxiety can still be helpful. Their risk-averse nature can make anxious people more organized and better at planning. From an interpersonal perspective, people who tend to be more apprehensive may also be less judgmental, more reliable, and more empathetic than those who experience less worry.
- Sadness: Some experts suggest that feeling blue—or even a little bit depressed—is the mind's way of getting people to slow down and examine their lives. People who are depressed often find themselves thinking constantly about the same problem or experience—they can't seem to think about anything else. Proponents of the benefits of sadness argue that this rumination helps people focus on their problems so that they can find solutions and healing. However, too much unfocused reflection can be unproductive—even harmful. Sharp says that the downside of depression occurs when a person starts feeling as though things in life will always go badly for them, or that they personally are a failure.
- Guilt: Psychologists argue that guilt can enrich relationships between people who have reciprocal feelings of concern for one another. Research conducted by psychologists from Case Western Reserve indicates that a healthy amount of remorse can compel people to fix the problems in their relationships. Guilt may foster intimacy between people by forcing them to consider one another's feelings and emotional needs. It can also help even out the distribution of power in relationships where one person is subordinate to another in some way.
Make your emotions work for you
Sharp offers three steps you can take to help identify and harness the positive potential of negative emotions:
- Stop: Before you can tease out how you're feeling, you need to stop the runaway train of thought that often accompanies negative emotions. Whenever you feel overwhelmed, Sharp suggests quieting you mind by envisioning a literal stop sign.
- Name: Once you've regained a bit of mental clarity. You need to put a name to your emotions. According to Sharp, many people have trouble accurately describing how they feel. "Try to name the feeling in the most nuanced way possible," he says, "Feelings are like gemstones—multi-faceted." For example, you might be feeling disappointed, but also pretty sad and angry, with a hint of tiredness. All of these feelings are contributing to your current mood and need to be recognized before they can be dealt with properly.
- Recognize: Feelings can be so powerful that it can be hard to separate ourselves from them. Sharp says that there are two important things you need to recognize about your emotions: a) feelings are not fact, and b) you are more than this one particular feeling. Emotions are temporary—you will not always feel angry, sad, etc.
Whether they're positive or negative, Sharp feels that it's important for caregivers to accept and learn from their emotions. "Emotions are a way to cast light on your experiences. They help you analyze how to do things better—how to have a better outcome next time," he says.
However, if your emotions become too strong or constant, they can be detrimental. If you reach the point of being overwhelmed by a particular emotion, you may need to seek help from a professional (psychologist, therapist) to help you cope with and sort through your feelings.