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The Purpose of Negative Emotions



Why do we feel bad? Ultimately nobody enjoys feeling bad. Nobody wants to feel fear, anxiety, worry, shame, jealousy or guilt. But these things are all useful and necessary. Negative emotions should be seen as an opportunity for change.

Think about it, the same way that physical pain is telling you that you’ve made a mistake or over-extended, emotional pain is doing exactly the same job. The only difference is that interpreting what you need to do differently can be a lot more confusing and convoluted. The overarching message is the same. Your body is telling you to change something in your world to help alleviate the feeling.

Physical pain vs. emotional pain

Remember the last time you stubbed your toe? Hurts, doesn’t it? If you’re anything like me then when it happens, the air around you turns blue with an outburst that would make even the devil take notice. You blame everything around you, possibly shouting at the chair or doorframe – wondering which idiot put it in your way in the first place.

I bet you don’t stub your toe all that often though right? That’s because it bloody hurts and you don’t want that to happen again. Your body has given you a message loud and clear: “don’t do that again.” So you adjust, you compensate.

Even months later when you’re unaware of the change. You’ve forgotten that stab of pain – but you automatically change your movements just slightly to avoid having that happen again. It WILL happen again one day, and it will be just as surprising and painful as the last time – but it won’t happen often because you’re adjusting as you go to stop it as much as you can.

The pain of negative emotions

The difficulty adjusting to emotional pain is that sometimes we can’t really identify the source of the pain. Shouting at your chair isn’t going to fix this one.

But negative emotions should be cause for self-reflection and thought. Taking some time and stepping back from the immediate day-to-day so that you can identify the source of your pain and think about how best to alleviate it can be invaluable. The reality is that negative emotions normally involve other people to some extent, and that invites a layer of complexity which you’ll have to deal with.

One very important thing to remember though. When dealing with other people, you can’t take responsibility for their actions. If you try to resolve a situation with someone – all you can do is what you feel is right. If they don’t decide to do the same, then you need to find a way to put the issue to bed and resolve it in your own mind.

How to stop bad feelings?

Address them head-on. Once you’ve identified the cause of your pain you need to address it. Just like with physical pain you need to do something different in order for it to stop.

A simple example: You’ve fallen out with a friend. A simple disagreement has turned into the silent treatment and you haven’t spoken in days. During each day you’re just slightly “off.” You can’t really put your finger on it – why you’re more tired, a little impatient with everyone around you, why simple tasks at work just seem a little tougher and more of a drag.

When you step back and think about it objectively, you know you shouldn’t be giving your friend the silent treatment, you probably know that you’re partly to blame for the falling out. Most likely it’s over something simple, and silly, and in the big scheme of things – pretty pointless. Who said what and who hurt whom, it all becomes irrelevant when you’re feeling constant negative emotions and its playing on your mind-affecting everything you do each day.

So what’s the solution? Fix it, or at least play your part. You can reach out to your friend, tell them you’re sorry for your part in the argument and that you would like to make it right between the two of you. Now, one of two things will happen. Either your friend will mirror your actions and you’ll be able to get to the bottom of what happened and agree to resolve it. Or they won’t, they’ll be stubborn and refuse to play ball.

If they refuse to help fix it with you, or they won’t accept your apology, this is also an opportunity. The reality is that if your friendship meant anything to them, they would accept the olive branch you’re offering and at least open up lines of communication. Sometimes this can be a long road to reconciliation, but simply the fact that you have taken action can help you start to feel better.

This scenario actually happened to me in recent history. A friend of many years suddenly stopped replying to messages and wouldn’t pick up the phone when I called. We hadn’t had a falling out and I hadn’t even realized there was a problem. As it turns out, I’d dropped the ball. I’d promised to help with something and hadn’t done what I’d said quickly enough. There are a million excuses I told myself for why, and they were legitimate, but from my friend’s point of view I’d let him down.

I made my apologies (and meant them), I felt really bad about the situation and wanted to address those negative emotions. However, he didn’t want to play ball. Radio silence.

Bad emotions: When you can’t fix them

The reality is that you can’t always fix negative emotions. Sometimes you just get hurt and you have to take the lesson and move on.

Being grateful for the lesson is hard at first. Sometimes you just get screwed over and you have to take the hit, get up, dust yourself off and move on – take the lesson with you and apply it in a productive way to your future.

With the example above. My friend still hasn’t spoken to me. Was my crime worthy of the punishment? I don’t think so, but obviously he does. Which one of us is right? It doesn’t matter – that question is a waste of my time (and his), and will only serve to extend the emotional pain.

The lesson here is that I did what I could to resolve the situation. You have to learn when it’s time to let it go. Accept the lesson. Be grateful for it (because it will serve you in the future – you may not see it yet but trust me, it will.)

My friend was unwilling to engage, so I have put the issue to bed and moved on. Do I still feel bad about it? Not really. I was – and still am – willing to help resolve matters but I can’t force the issue. Continuing to chase is a waste of my time and energy. Is he still my friend you might ask – well for my part, yes. I’m comfortable with things the way they are and so I don’t feel those bad emotions anymore.

So the lesson is: address your bad emotions, do what you can to fix them. If they’re self-inflicted then do what you can to make it better. Change your behavior to alleviate guilt or shame. If they’re caused by someone else’s actions, then tell that person. If they refuse to change their behavior and you know it will continue to hurt you emotionally – simple – walk away. Change the game and make your life better as a result.

Bad emotions: Accepting the reality

The upshot is that you have to accept the reality of your situation. Denial is its own cause of suffering and won’t help you in the long run. The reality will stay the same despite your denial, but what you’re missing out on is the lesson!

Sometimes the only good thing to come from a situation is the lesson you can take with you. If you deny the problem and bury your head in the sand, you’re missing out on the life lesson that could save you from stubbing your toe in the future.

Previously published on

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