As a former teacher and a current narrative therapist, I believe in the power of words. I cautioned my students about using the word “easy,” because what was easy for them might not be easy for a classmate. I encourage couples during conflict to be intentional with their speech because the same word might have a different meaning to their partner. And above all, I tell almost all my clients that I don’t believe in using the phrase “negative emotions.”
Here are my top 5 reasons why:
1) “Negative” has negative connotations.
When we hear the word “negative”, we often equate that with “bad’. When we start thinking of our emotions as bad, we’re more likely to hide them or to try to get rid of them. Instead, we should be taking the time to figure out where the emotions are coming from and what we can do in response!
2) It invalidates emotions.
The concept of validation is very important to me. To validate means to give the space and understanding for why an emotion exists. We aren’t judging it or assigning a value to it; we are simply giving it the space to be. As soon as we invalidate an emotion by calling it negative, we stand the chance of judging ourselves for feeling it. This can lead to a shame spiral that sinks us further into the emotion rather than working through it.
3) We can get stuck.
When we view our emotions as negative, we tend to avoid them. According to an article by Dr. Holly Parker, avoiding our emotions often leads to feeling worse in the long run. It can even lead to self-destructive behaviors like self-medicating through alcohol or drug use. In short, we get stuck in the very emotions we are trying to avoid!
4) It’s often the wrong focus.
Too often, what we dislike about “negative” emotions is our reactions to them and the actions that follow, NOT the emotions themselves. We don’t like to be sad because we don’t like crying in front of people. We don’t like anger because it causes us to lash out at the people we love. What we should be working towards is our emotional regulation, not our avoidance of emotions!
5) All emotions can be helpful.
Our emotions exist for a reason! Without anxiety, we might not push ourselves to study for the test. Without anger, we might not feel the need to stand up against injustice. Yes, they might carry a level of discomfort, but that very discomfort might be what motivates us to make that change!
A Balanced View of Emotions
Instead of seeing emotions like anger, grief, and anxiety as negative, I encourage my clients to see them as strong or even overwhelming. I tell them that they don’t have to like the emotion they are experiencing, but they do need to accept that it is there.
Have curiosity about the emotion! Why is it there? Is it helpful in that place, or is it tied to an experience in the past that needs to be addressed? Emotions are bits of information, and the more we can consider that information, the more we can proceed in a way that honors our core values.
It’s not going to be easy, but it can start as simply as striking the phrase “negative emotions” from your daily usage!