Embrace Negative Emotions

I’ve recently come across a TED talk by a psychologist Susan David who delivered a TED talk titled  ‘Why it’s good to embrace negative feelings’. I immediately got interested in it due to a conviction of mine that anger is a positive emotion and can be used for powerful transformations. In her talk, she makes some significant points, and I would like to share these in this blog post.

Negative emotions
She claims to have surveyed 70k of individuals and found that a third of us either judge ourselves for having ‘negative emotions’ like sadness, anger, grief or they actively try to push those feelings aside and move on. We tend to do it ourselves, but this is also built into our cultures where we punish children using shame when they feel these so-called ‘negative emotions’. It doesn’t occur to us that all emotions are healthy, natural and have an important function to perform in our lives.

False positivity
So what do we choose instead? Since sadness, anger, grief are perceived as ‘bad’ and we are shamed for feeling them, what options do we have? Well, being cheerful and happy is a new fashion so we chose ‘fake positivity’ instead and pretend that we are okay. We don’t need to look far to find a proof of this. Facebook is a place, where evidence can be found left, right and centre! Everyone seems very happy, healthy and having the time of their lives but it is the case only until you speak to them and find out what they struggle with and then the happiness bubble is burst.

The function of sadness, anger, grief, disappointment
So what happens when we replace ‘bad’ emotions with ‘false positivity’. Susan David suggests that we lose our natural ability to deal with the world as is, which is a critical skill for any human. She has people telling her that they don’t want to feel those feelings or that they would rather not try to avoid feeling disappointed. She has a hugely surprising response to those wishes!

Dead people’s goals
Susan David refers to wishes of not feeling ‘bad’ feelings as ‘dead people’s goals’. Yes, you read that right! She says that only dead people never get stressed, never feel sad or disappointed because of failures. The audience laughs in surprise but this statement is very true indeed! “Tough emotions’, as she calls them, are part of our ‘contract with life’ and are a normal, healthy and expected part of our lives. We are not meant to evaluate all possible discomfort from our lives. She concludes her talk by stating that ‘Discomfort is a price for admission to a meaningful life’.

Numbing ‘bad’ feelings
I’m in full agreement with Susan David and I find this topic to be of high importance at present. However, I would like to add to it. We seem to be going even a step further than only choosing ‘false positivity’. We actually found an even better way of not only reducing ‘bad’ feelings but getting rid of them all together. At least for some time. How? I’m sure you guessed by now that I’m referring to pharmacology, which hands us powerful pills, which make feelings go away. And there certainly are cases where this solution is a good one: some people are unable to function due to various past events, especially those most traumatic ones. But pharmacology seems to be becoming a fashion recently, with some alarming statistics accessible online. And this is what is worrying here – the new trend to numb emotions, which we find inconvenient or hard to face.

Desensitisation is the new hot topic 
Funny enough, Marianne Williamson also covered the topic of numbing feelings during her talk in London, which only took place three days ago. You can read about it here. When our external world seems to be booming with advancement and progress, our internal, emotional worlds are being shattered at the same time. Susan David summarises it very well by saying: ‘The World Health Organisation tells us that depressions is now the single leading cause of disability globally – outstripping cancer, outstripping heart disease. And at a time of greater complexity, unprecedented technological, political and economic change, we are seeing how people’s tendency is more and more to lock down into rigid responses to their emotions.’

Robyn Skinner, an author of an excellent book ‘Families and how to survive them’, also covers the topic of not feeling the feelings. He takes an angle of a family therapist who observes his patients, who skilfully deny their emotions, disown them and skilfully hide them behind what he refers to as a screen. But he also tells the reader about what happens with those hidden emotions with time. Anger for example, will sit behind the screen for a while, not being felt or expressed in an appropriate way. But this only happens up to a point, which is when it can no longer be contained and it has to vent. The trouble is that it vents in random situations and with a much bigger strength than appropriate. Often, it is not controlled by an individual, who might be surprised by his own over reaction. It is quite easy to image how this pattern leads straight to what is labelled as ‘anger issues’ and requires therapy.

Emotional education era 
It is clear that hiding, denying, disowning emotions is definitely not the way we are meant to handle fear or sadness. But do we have a clear view of what is the correct way of handling them? Perhaps it is now the time to commence an era of emotional education before we all become like numb robots who are unable to function without pharmacological support?

How about you?
Most importantly, what do you do when you feel so-called ‘bad’ emotions? Do you see them as bad or perhaps perfectly natural and normal? Do you embrace and accept them as they arise or do you hide them behind your own screen and pretend they don’t exist? Have you ever been told that anger is a good and productive feeling, and that it is ok to feel it? Or were you shamed and shouted at for getting angry in your childhood? Please share your throughs and experiences and let me know if this topic is important for you.


Source: https://www.ted.com/talks/susan_david_the_gift_and_power_of_emotional_courage/transcript?language=en  [Online. Accessed 3rd June 2018]

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