How Negative Emotions Can Be Helpful

Published: January 11, 2023
Category: Mental HealthMind/Body Well-Being


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I have a confession to make. Like so many people, I used to work really hard to stuff down my negative thoughts and feelings. This is a natural thing to want to do and there are so many strategies that people use to effectively deny experiencing their negative feelings. One popular strategy is to get super busy. When you’re always immersed in another project—organizing your sock drawer, working as many hours as you can, or getting lost in your favorite series, or spending hours escaping on social media—then it’s easy to forget your worries while you’re totally distracted and engaged in other pursuits. 

Another way that people often stuff their negative feelings is to try to talk ourselves out of it. Working hard to convince yourself that you should not have been thinking these negative thoughts in the first place. However this strategy often backfires. As social psychologist Daniel Wegner learned when he conducted a study in which he asked participants to not think of a polar bear for five minutes. That was their one task and they were to ring a bell if they thought of a polar bear at all during those five minutes. Well, guess what? Everyone thought of a polar bear an average of once per minute. This led to Wegner developing his theory of ironic processes, which explains that when we actively try to not think of something, we’re going to usually end up thinking about it. So, trying to talk ourselves out of negative thoughts or trying to ignore them is not an effective strategy because it amplifies the opportunity to bring that negativity into the foreground. 

Over the past two years, fueled by small and dramatic ways that COVID has turned out lives around, I realized and also admitted for the first time—this is kind of embarrassing—that I too have negative feelings. And, when you’re a Positive Psychology thought leader, this realization feels like a double whammy because when you have negative feelings you know all the things you can do to reduce the negative feelings. So I called my dear friend and mentor Dr. Tal Ben-Shahar confessing this dilemma. Tal is a thought leader in the science of happiness and a leading light in the field of Positive Psychology and he says, “Lisa, we all need to give ourselves permission to be human. And that includes experiencing negative emotions.”

So, today, it’s a wonderful opportunity to practice giving yourself permission to be human by accepting some of the not-so-pleasant thoughts that are surely kicking around in that big old brain of yours. Thoughts are just thoughts, feelings are just feelings. Don’t waste a nano-second thinking about the fact that you experience these negative thoughts and feelings – because we all experience negative feelings. It’s more about what you do when you start to experience those feelings. Try having grace and show some loving kindness toward yourself. I promise you that this strategy really works because whenever I give myself permission to acknowledge and to feel all of my feelings, the negative ones dissipate much sooner. When I can take a pause I can realize what is triggering me – that’s the feeling underneath the negative thought. And then, just like a dark storm cloud, the negative feeling will pass.

I’m sending you strength and love. 

Soaringwords is the power to heal. 


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