How to Make Your Bad Feelings Work For YouNone By Derrick Carpenter
If we were to design a Happify mascot, we’d probably start a big debate over what represents happiness the best. Something cuddly? Energetic? Peaceful? Or kind? What wouldn’t come up in that brainstorming session are a whole lot of negative emotion words. Grumpy. Disappointed. Filled with guilt. Bad feelings—otherwise known as negative emotions by psychology researchers—aren’t what we typically associate with happiness. They're often uncomfortable to experience and many of us take purposeful steps to avoid or deny them when we do.
All emotions, though, are natural signals for us to pay attention to something. Think about it: we don’t get angry without some sort of stimulus. We only feel that rage when someone violates our rights or those of our loved ones, and the resulting anger helps us protect ourselves.
The ancestors we evolved from relied on these kinds of negative emotions in order to stay alive. When a saber-toothed tiger stalked past their cave, the immediate anxiety that led them to run and hide is the reason they survived. In today's world, negative emotions aren't necessarily a bad thing—they can direct our focus towards problems we need to solve, improve our performance, and build our compassion.
But too much of a bad thing is, well, not fun at all. Many of us experience negative emotions too much and our ability to function optimally suffers.
Here are four major categories of negative emotions and some tips for helping you to think through whether the feeling is a friend that can motivate you to do something—or a foe that you should feel motivated to defeat.
Whether it’s the nagging worry that you forgot to pay your bills or the heart-stopping adrenaline rush you get leaning over the edge of a canyon, fear is signaling you that danger is ahead.
Friend: A little worry can be helpful, especially when it motivates you to take action to relieve it. If you’re worried about an upcoming presentation, or nervous about your blind date Friday night, allow the anxiety you feel to fuel some extra preparation. In the long run this will boost your confidence.
Foe: If your fear or anxiety is weighing on you enough to prevent meaningful movement forward, it’s time to fight back. Calm and relax your body with exercise or meditation or talk about your fears out loud with a trusted friend. Our premium track, Overcome Anxiety by Roberta Lee, M.D., is a great place to start.
Anger shows up when we feel we’ve been violated and intruded upon wrongly or unnecessarily, and can take the form of mild irritation, seething frustration, or full-on rage.
Friend: If someone did something that hurt or bothered you, like when your partner didn’t slow down to focus on the exciting news you shared yesterday evening, tune into your anger and get curious about how their actions made you feel. In many cases, particularly with people close to us, it’s appropriate to communicate what we’re feeling in an assertive and controlled way.
Foe: Blaming the world for your problems is not a pathway to happiness. If your anger seems scattered across many targets or if you don’t have any control or influence over the situation that frustrated you—like the driver who cut you off on your morning commute—it’s probably best to drop it. Try shifting gears by practicing kindness or empathy. Do something nice for someone who least expects it or try to see a situation in which someone hurt you from their perspective.
A feeling that emerges when we’ve lost something we value, we experience sadness when we lose a loved one and when we make a change in our life that forces us to leave the past behind.
Friend: When you’ve lost something you care about, sadness can be your cue to slow down and honor it. Whether it’s a person, a pet, a period of life, or a profession, listen to your solemn feelings and mark the occasion. Strive to find meaning in the loss and identify a way to carry that meaning forward into your future.
Foe: When sadness overwhelms you, you may be experiencing an episode of depression. While physical exercise and connecting with others can help, it may be difficult to get yourself going. Try taking a small step that feels doable, and pay attention to what helps you feel better. If a deep sadness persists and is limiting your ability to manage daily tasks, consult a healthcare professional.
Often a painful emotion that’s difficult to shake, shame reflects our interpretation that something is fundamentally wrong with us and that we don’t measure up to other people.
Friend: A bit of guilt, when it’s warranted, may be exactly the humble pie we need. It compels us to reevaluate our actions, which may have hurt others, and to apologize and make amends. Take this as a signal that you care about the situation and do your best to fix it.
Foe: Feeling insecure, inadequate, or worse is the best way to ruin a good day. If you are questioning your self-worth, take stock that something in your life is truly bothering you, but this emotion isn’t serving you. Focus on your strengths to build confidence. Take on a task you know you can do well to create positive momentum. Or try these tips for turning your insecurities into inspiration.
Derrick Carpenter, MAPP, coaches individuals on living engaged and inspired lives, runs experiential corporate leadership programs, and trains US Army personnel on resilience. He's researched what makes people great in psychology labs at Harvard, Yale, and UPenn, where he received his Master of Applied Positive Psychology.
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