What Can We Learn From Negative Emotions?

Usually when people come to counseling, they are in emotional distress. If you are struggling, you might be in that place right now. Maybe you feel depressed, down, and sad. Or perhaps you feel anxious, uptight, and nervous. You want relief from the unpleasant emotions you are experiencing.

I know for me, when I am experiencing an unpleasant emotion, my first thought is “How can I get rid of the emotion?” I don’t want to feel this way, and I want relief right now. I want an intervention that will allow me to leave the place of sadness or anxiety I am in, and move to a place of happiness or relaxation.

Escaping Negative Emotions Too Quickly

Sometimes I think I try to escape my negative emotions too quickly.

Let me unpack that a bit. I don’t believe that emotions happen in a vacuum. Instead, our emotional experience is connected to our thoughts, beliefs, actions, behaviors, and circumstances. If we can sit with our negative emotions instead of running away from them, we might find they have something to teach us.

Learning from Negative Emotions

For example, the emotion of sadness might tell us we are experiencing a loss. Maybe we are grieving the loss of a family member, friend, or dream. Or perhaps we are feeling sad because some of our needs aren’t getting met. That might be something to explore. How might we get those needs met?

The emotion of anger might tell us we are experiencing an injustice. Maybe someone has hurt us in the past, or is hurting us right now. Perhaps an important boundary is being crossed. Those things might be important to attend to. Maybe we need to stand up for ourselves and set a boundary with the person who is hurting us. Perhaps we need to find support, or recruit someone to intervene for us.

The emotion of fear might tell us we are in danger. Maybe we are in danger of being hurt, physically or emotionally. We might be headed in a direction that isn’t good for us. It might be a good idea to take some steps to protect ourselves, or proceed more cautiously.

Can you see how our emotions might have something to teach us? If we run too quickly from our emotional experience in the hope of getting immediate relief, we might lose out on an important lesson that could help us in our lives.

Action Step: Today, if you feel sad, angry, or scared, I invite you to sit with the emotion for a bit. Try to sit with your feeling for 15 minutes. Take some time to think and journal about what the emotion might be teaching you. What is it telling you about your life? What is one lesson or takeaway you can learn from your feeling?

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