The Fallacy of Positive and Negative Emotions
For too long, Western psychology has explored psychopathology without much inclusion of the positive aspects of being human, which may leave us with a bleak or stern view of psychology. Fortunately, being interested in wellness, personal growth, and positive psychology is a growing trend.
In an attempt to explain things simply, there is often a distinction made between positive and negative emotions. Positive emotions are considered to be pleasant feelings such as joy, pleasure, love, gratitude, or contentment. Negative emotions may include anxiety, anger, sadness, loneliness, fear, or other uncomfortable or undesirable feelings.
While there is no consensus about how to define well-being, is often explained as the presence of positive emotions and the absence of negative ones. This is a simple way to differentiate between what uplifts us and what unsettles us. But there’s something about this simplistic view that unsettles me.
If we divide emotions into positive and negative ones, it creates a dualistic view of our human emotions. If we believe that some emotions are negative, it’s almost impossible for our human psyche to not want to eliminate these “negative” emotions and hold on to the “positive” ones. As a result, we’re likely to set up a tension in our psyche. We try to cling to what’s pleasant and develop an aversion what’s unpleasant. According to Buddhist Psychology, it is this very clinging that creates suffering in our lives. This is not a formula for finding joy and well-being.
There are no emotions that are bad or negative, but rather ones that are sometimes uncomfortable, unpleasant, or difficult to face and feel. If we want to enjoy more uplifting emotions, we don’t get there by pushing away, denying, or avoiding the unpleasant ones. We only get there by creating a friendly space for the full range of our human experience. The path toward inner peace and wholeness requires that we find peace with the full range of our emotions rather than trying to get rid of the ones we consider unsavory.
Befriending All of Our Feelings
Since we are wired with the fight, flight, freeze response, it’s not surprising that our tendency would be to push away feelings that we experience as threatening to our well-being. Fortunately, there is also something in us that can relate to our experience in a more calm and measured way. We have the capacity to bring mindfulness to whatever we happen to be experiencing, whether pleasant or uncomfortable.
One key to well-being is to honor and accept ourselves as we are. This means making room for our human experience just as it is without judging ourselves. In Eugene Gendlin’s Focusing approach, what helps us to create a shift in our inner landscape is move toward holding unpleasant experiences in a gentle, caring way. Gendlin called this approach the “Focusing attitude.” It is an attitude or orientation of kindness and friendliness toward whatever we’re experience inside.
The next time you notice feelings such as sadness, anxiety, shame, or hurt, notice how you relate to these feelings. Do you tend to push them away? Do they feel overwhelming? Before reacting or shutting down your feelings, try taking a moment to get grounded. Perhaps feel your feet on the ground or look at something pleasant in your environment. Take a few slow, deep breaths.
When you feel grounded, see if you can bring some gentleness to what you’re noticing in your body. If it’s a feeling you don’t want to get close to, see if you can keep that feeling at some distance from yourself; maybe it’s ok to feel some part of the difficult feeling. If not, then just notice how scary or uncomfortable this feeling is. You don’t have to go into it. Perhaps you can come back to it later if you want, or work with a therapist who can help you explore it.
By viewing feelings as pleasant or uncomfortable rather than positive or negative, you might be more inclined to welcome them and explore them rather than cling to them or try to get rid of them. Unpleasant feelings tend to pass as we make room for them rather than seeing them as an enemy. Loving yourself means allowing your feelings to be just as they are. And we could all use a little more self-love.