Most people struggle more than they need to with difficult emotions like anxiety, grief, shame, and anger.
And while there are many possible reasons for chronic emotional struggles, there’s one that’s incredibly important but almost totally ignored and misunderstood.
In fact, if I could only give one piece of advice to someone for improving their emotional health and wellbeing, it might be this:
Stop labeling feelings you don’t like as “negative.”
And the reason is pretty straightforward:
When you refer to difficult emotions as negative, you reinforce the belief that those emotions are bad, which is neither true nor helpful.
In the rest of this little essay, I’ll unpack why I think it’s utterly false that certain emotions are “negative,” why that belief actually makes your emotional struggles worse, and a few tips for thinking more accurately and helpfully about difficult feelings.
Why “Negative” Emotions Are Not In Fact Bad
Each of these reasons could be essays in their own right, but I’m going to try and keep them concise. If you have thoughts or questions, please put them into the comments and I’ll try my best to respond.
1. An emotion cannot be bad in a moral sense because emotions are not something you have direct control over.
Think about it: No one gets sent to jail for feeling angry because anger isn’t something you can control.
Now, you might end up in the slammer if you act on your anger aggressively. But that’s because, unlike your emotions, your actions are something you can control—and as result, something that can be judged as morally good or bad.
Nobody chooses to have an emotion, which means they can’t be morally good or bad.
2. An emotion cannot be bad in the sense of being dangerous because emotions themselves can’t actually hurt you.
No amount of sadness, for example, will do you physical harm.
Running away from your sadness by getting wasted or distracting yourself with reckless behavior might do you real harm. But emotions themselves can’t hurt you.
Now, you might say that having certain emotions like anxiety, for example, for long periods of time can lead to chronic stress, which is in fact harmful to your body.
But often the reason difficult emotions like anxiety persist so long is because people unintentionally prolong and intensify them as a direct result of trying to avoid or eliminate them—both of which usually come from a belief that the emotion itself is negative or bad.
3. Feeling bad doesn’t mean you are bad.
A lot of people think of certain emotions as “negative” and bad because of a deep belief that to feel bad is bad.
Now, there are a million and one reasons why people develop beliefs like this, but the key is to realize that they simply don’t make any sense.
Feeling ashamed, for example, because you made one mistake doesn’t mean the entirety of you as a person is a failure. To define the entirety of yourself by one particular experience or set of experiences is frankly just silly.
You would never call someone else a failure simply because they felt ashamed after making a mistake. So why the double standard?
Whether you buy all three of those micro-arguments completely or not, hopefully they’ve at least encouraged you to rethink what it means for an emotion to be “negative” or bad.
In any case, let’s move on to the more practical point that, whatever you believe to be true or not about emotions as negative, thinking about them that way is almost certainly unhelpful.
Difficult feelings are not bad, but labeling them as such might be
Most people believe that because difficult emotions feel bad, they are bad.
On some level, this makes sense because pain is often associated with bad things. Take the classic example of your finger touching a hot pan on the stove: Superficially, you might say that in this case the pain is bad since your finger is burning. But upon closer examination, that reasoning doesn’t really hold up…
The pain you feel itself isn’t actually damaging. Pain is just a signal or messenger that feels bad in order to get your attention so that you can do something about the real danger—a hot pan burning your finger. The pan is the threat, not the pain in your nerve cells.
Similarly, when you feel fear while being chased by a bear, the fear isn’t dangerous. Getting mauled by a bear is the real danger. Fear is actually helping you avoid getting hurt.
Still, feeling bad—physically or emotionally—hurts. And in the moment, usually we just want to get rid of the pain. But the avoidance of pain, however understandable, can be very dangerous.
A couple simple examples:
- Avoiding social anxiety before a party by getting drunk can lead to the very dangerous decision to drive while intoxicated.
- Avoiding the pain of overwhelm at work by stress eating junk food can lead to unhealthy weight gain.
But it’s not just physical problems like car accidents and weight gain that result from pain avoidance. Most emotional struggles ultimately boil down to unhealthy avoidance strategies.
- Procrastination is almost always the result of trying to avoid some uncomfortable emotion associated with work such as fear of failure.
- Social anxiety is always prolonged and strengthened by avoiding social situations that trigger anxiety.
- Depression is often exacerbated by ruminating on past failures and mistakes in a vain attempt to “fix” things or figure them out.
- Relationship stress and resentment are very frequently the results of one or both parties avoiding emotional vulnerability and the fear that comes with speaking honestly about how they feel.
Like so many things in life, the avoidance of emotional pain feels good in the short term but makes things worse in the long term.
Now, I bring all this up because very often the habit of emotional avoidance starts with the very words and language we use to describe how we feel…
- If you constantly tell yourself that your anxiety is “negative” or “bad,” is it any surprise that your urge to avoid it gets stronger and stronger, and as a result, the feeling itself bigger and bigger?
- If you regularly criticize yourself for feeling the “negative” emotion of anger, is it any surprise that you end up suppressing your anger only to have it “leak” out in the form of passive-aggressive communication or chronic resentment?
If you treat your emotions like enemies, that’s increasingly how they’ll feel.
On the other hand, if you can start to talk and think about your difficult feelings using more balanced and neutral language, they’re very likely to become less intense over time. And as a result, your ability to manage your emotions in a healthy and productive way will improve greatly.
In the next section, I’ll offer a few simple tips for doing just that.
A few tips for thinking about difficult emotions in a healthier way
Most of our difficult emotions would be far more manageable and less intense if we stopped treating them like enemies to be eliminated. And I believe that process begins with the words we use to talk about how we feel.
Here are a few tips to help you create a healthier and happier relationship with your negative difficult emotions.
- Replace “Negative” with “Difficult,” “Uncomfortable,” or “Painful.” Just stop using the term “negative” to describe your emotions. For most of us it has too many associations with morality or danger and threat to be helpful. Instead, get in the habit of using more mechanical and neutral words like difficult, uncomfortable, or painful to describe how you feel emotionally. Words matter. And the words you use with your emotions matter far more than you realize.
- Remind yourself that just because it feels bad doesn’t mean it is bad (or that you’re bad for feeling it). Make this your mantra and do whatever you can to internalize it. Put it on sticky notes in your office, repeat it to yourself on your commute, explain it to friends, contemplate it while you’re praying or meditating. Seriously, this is the single most important idea in all of emotional health. No matter how painful, your emotions are not the problem. Stop treating them like it.
- Distinguish how you feel from how you act. In just about every case of chronic emotional struggle I’ve ever encountered, at the heart of it is usually some confusion between feeling and behavior. More specifically, people are trying to control something they can’t (an emotion), and as a result, not exerting enough control over something they can (a behavior). For example, trying to control anxiety can blind you to the importance of taking control over your worry habit. Trying to control your anger often prevents you from taking control over your aggression. Trying to control your grief often distracts you from taking advantage of the relationships you still have.
The Secret to Feeling Good
If there’s a secret to emotional wellbeing, I think it’s this:
Stop treating difficult emotions like enemies.
The instinct to avoid or get rid of difficult feelings is understandable. And in the short term, it can lead to some temporary relief. But the price we pay for a combative relationship with our emotions is never worth it in the end.
A good way to start building a healthier and happier relationship with our emotions is to be more careful with the words we use to describe them.
Want to work with me to create a healthier relationship with your emotions?
A couple times a year, I take a small group of students through a live, six-week course to build emotional strength and resilience. If you’re interested, you can learn more here →