‘Negative’ Emotions Are Far More Important Than You Might Think

‘Negative’ Emotions Are Far More Important Than You Might Think

Emotions are strange. They’re broad-ranging and powerful and can drive you to do curious things.

They can also feel overwhelming and difficult to control. Especially during testing times, like say, living through a global pandemic and weathering unusual experiences like spending months in lockdown.

While certain emotional experiences (joy, calm, desire) are positive and leave us wanting to dive deeper into the sensation, there are others that aren’t so fun. There’s a reason so many of us fervently avoid “catching feelings”, after all.

In her book, Darkness is Golden, Sydney-based psychologist Mary Hoang of the Indigo Project touches on the nature of those icky emotions, and writes in defence of them. All of them.

I have read this book, cover to cover, and it is an insightful lesson in how to approach times where tricky feelings come up.

Here’s what I learnt:

An honest look at the feelings we avoid is part of finding self-acceptance


In chapter three, ‘I Just Want to Be Happy’: In Defence of Emotions. (All of Them), Hoang writes of the incredible difficulty that comes with facing the skeletons of your past.

“Hearing these stories can be painful. They tell of traumas, losses and disappointments,” she shares.

But confronting those stories, and the feelings they bring up is part of the healing process. As Hoang puts it, “This is where it all begins. When you first turn on the torch of self-awareness, illuminating the dark corners of your mind, it can be hard to confront what you find in the shadows. But this is an exploration that is worth it.”

We avoid negative feelings because we’re taught anything other than happiness is ‘failure’

Hoang went on to share that our discomfort at feeling negative emotions like grief, anxiety and sadness goes beyond the pure pain of it. While “Emotional pain registers in the same area of the brain as physical pain,” she writes, we’re also socially taught that being happy is the only goal. Anything less is heavy and complicated and uncomfortable to talk about – it’s seen as a failure.

“You may have learnt that being sad or angry were ‘bad’ emotions, which meant if you ever expressed these feelings you were punished, but rewarded if you were cheerful, happy, or quiet. Perhaps you changed your own behaviour to accommodate someone else’s emotions, hiding your own feelings or walking on eggshells in fear of someone else being upset or angry.”

Often this comes through family dynamics, or even schooling and the public perception of emotion. This is a difficult cycle of thought to break out of.

Suppressing negative feelings only worsens them

Sorry to say it, friends. But squashing down any nasty feelings you don’t want to know about does not work.

In fact, according to a study Hoang references in the book, holding those emotions in can cause us to actually feel more stress. They also have a particularly negative impact on relationships, along with your mental and physical health.

At some point, you’ve got to let yourself feel it all

We feel emotions because they are useful to us. They each play a part and without them, we’d be worse off. For example, as much as we hate to feel guilt, Hoang points out, it’s an important indicator of when we may have wronged someone and need to do better. The same goes for the entire spectrum of emotion.

“We have it in our heads that growing has to feel good, or that feeling uncomfortable is a sign that we are failing to grow. Flip that idea on its head: you can grow while feeling pain,” she shares.

Embrace all of it, and you’ll be more balanced and more in tune with yourself as a result.

If you’re struggling with anxiety and depression, know that help is available. Contact BeyondBlue on 1300 22 4636 or Lifeline on 13 11 14.

This article has been updated since its original publish date. 

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