How Negative Emotions Can Help You to Be Happier
Do you know what I love about negative emotions?
Yes, you read that correctly - there is something I really like about feelings like guilt, regret, sadness, anxiety, and even anger.
It’s that they have so much to teach me about what is important to me, and the kind of person I would like to be.
For example, I always seem to get really angry if I see someone being treated unfairly. That tells me I’m the kind of person who likes to be fair.
Sadness shows me what I value, what I’d like to hold close. Though I may learn this when I’ve already lost something important to me, sadness guides me to be more appreciative of similar things in the future.
Anxiety shows me what I’m afraid to lose, and therefore what I want. If you’re afraid of being rejected, after all, that’s just the other side of wanting to belong. And if I have a lot of fear around failing in a certain area, I know it would mean an awful lot to me if I were to succeed.
Negative emotions tend to occur when there is a disconnect between what is important to you, and your experience.
They are a sign of your values, hopes, and expectations.
The point of negative feelings is quite positive: they set you up to be happier going forward. They attempt to reorient you to prioritise the things that are important to you, and sometimes they invite you to change your behaviour so that it’s more aligned to your values.
When I first moved to the UK, I spent months feeling sad and guilty about how disconnected I felt from my family back home.
“I really should keep in touch more,” I would hear myself say over and over.
I was really missing my family, I felt sad about it and bad about it, but I’m embarassed to say that for almost a year I shied away from the discomfort of those feelings.
I never really looked at them closely enough to consider what they were trying to tell me.
For months, therefore, I went on feeling sad and disconnected. I kept feeling guilty about not keeping in touch.
I think about those feelings now, desperately trying to get my attention: “HELLO? Are you even listening?!”
When I finally stopped and paid attention what they had to say, this is what I discovered:
I value being close with my family.
It’s important to me to keep in touch.
I want to be the person who picks up the phone.
Overnight, everything changed.
I’ll never forget what one of my friends said the first time I called her out of the blue.
“Um, is everything okay?” she asked. “You always arrange a call - you never just call.”
I felt shocked that she was shocked. But there was that message again: it’s important to me to call. So I kept calling.
These days I chat to my family regularly, and spontaneous calls have become routine. Got 10 minutes to spare? Pick up the phone!
I’m proud to say that I now feel really close with everyone back home, despite being so far away. I’m so grateful for that guilt, because it led to me feeling really connected, and that made me a lot happier.
But here’s the caveat.
Because feelings like guilt, sadness, regret and the like are uncomfortable to feel, we often turn away from them. Just like I did.
In doing so, it’s easy to miss out on what they’re trying to say, and end up feeling those uncomfortable feelings for longer than we'd have to if we just paid attention to what they had to say.
Just like I did.
It’s only when we find the courage to face our hard feelings that we’re able to discover the treasures within them. Personally, I find that knowing that there is a useful message underneath helps me to find that courage.
Now, it's your turn:
Think of an uncomfortable feeling that keeps recurring in your life.
What does it tell you is important to you? What value is underneath it?