One of my main objectives as a therapist is to help people experience their feelings more deeply.  Everyone coming to therapy struggles with some type of feeling.  A lot of people come to therapy because they feel deeply stuck in a feeling (e.g., anxiety) and want to make it “go away.”  I find, however, that most people are not feeling their emotions enough, rather than too much.  It’s the avoidance of the feeling that gets people stuck, not the experience of the feeling.  Avoidance can come in many forms: substance abuse, being overly scheduled, addiction to technology, working more than is necessary, isolation from others—the list is endless.

And who can blame anyone for trying to avoid/numb/stuff an unpleasant feeling?  Unpleasant feelings, by their definition, don’t feel good.  Human beings are constantly looking for ways to avoid pain and seek pleasure.  However, once I can help people learn how to identify and tolerate feelings, something very surprising happens: they learn that not only can they tolerate it, but it’s not as bad as they thought it would be.  In other words: We are equipped to experience every deeply unsettling emotion imaginable without collapsing.

One way that I try to help people become better acquainted with feelings is to educate them on why we need feelings at all.  In particular, why do we need unpleasant feelings?  This blog is going to focus on the positive side of negative emotions.  Given this, we are all well aware of the destructive power of our negative feelings. We’re all familiar with the dangers of rage, the corrosive power of shame, the crushing weight of grief and the paralyzing dizziness of anxiety.  I want to acknowledge this and strongly emphasize that I am in no way trying to devalue or minimize the power of our unpleasant emotions.  I am simply trying to highlight the upside of our most negative emotions to provide a more balanced perspective of emotions, and to communicate why we are equipped to feel emotional pain so deeply.

This entry come from a combination of my own experiences as a clinician, plus inspiration from an article from last month’s “Psychology Today”.

1) Anger

Anger is a response to feeling undervalued.  It can push us to asserting our worth, and can help us gain respect.  When we can assert our anger appropriately, we remind people to take us seriously and to not underestimate our worth.  Plus, it can help us get what we want or need.  When it’s out of control, it can be abusive, but on the other hand, when we stuff the pain of devaluation this can lead to depression and health problems.  Unlike some other unpleasant emotions, anger fuels us to action.  It can boost our self confidence and willingness to take risk.  When asserted properly, it can boost our reputation among others as it is a signal that we have strength and conviction.  Anger on our a societal scale can be beneficial, as well.  Civil rights movements and gender equality movements, for example, was powered by people who were angry at injustice and were fueled to make change happen.

2) Shame, Guilt & Embarrassment

We are pack animals, not lone wolves.  As social beings, we need to get along with others.  Human beings could not have survived without being socially cohesive. When we violate a norm (e.g., show road rage) and feel subsequent shame or embarrassment, we need a way to pull ourselves back towards appropriate behavior.  When we yell at someone for cutting us off and flip them off, narrowly avoiding an accident with another car in the process, shame or embarrassment can be a good reminder as to why we shouldn’t repeat that behavior in the future.  Yes, it feels lousy at first.  But if used in a productive way, it can help us introspect and ponder our mistake, and think about how we can fix it.  Embarrassment can also help us make amends in a relationship.  If we feel shame or guilt after blowing up at our spouse, the sting of these emotions can lead us to apologize and think about ways to avoid future blow ups.

3) Envy

Research psychologists talk about benevolent envy versus malignant envy.  Benevolent envy can push us to be more diligent, creative, and resourceful.  Malignant envy, on the other hands, makes us want to destroy another.  Benevolent envy is at work when we see a co-worker who is repeatedly more successful, and this contrast makes us work harder, take more creative risks, and focus on self improvement.  In other words, benevolent envy can drive success.

4) Fear & Anxiety

Fear is our defender.  Like physical pain, it hurts but it signals to us that something is wrong.  Fear helps heighten our senses and be on alert, a very important survival mechanism.  However, fear is not just for our physical survival, but our social survival as well.  Fear can make us more aware of social norms and morals, pushing us to act in harmony when needed.  For example, fear can prevent us from blowing up at a superior and being fired.  Anticipatory fear can also protect us from making self destructive mistakes.  It’s the impetus to us having protected sex, driving more safely, or holding back on gambling our savings.  When we are afraid but can’t directly address or identify the threat, then we’re experience anxiety.  Even anxiety, though, can be helpful. In appropriate doses, anxiety can be stimulating and can actually help us perform better on tests or public performance.  In appropriate amounts, anxiety can help us be more self disciplined.  Anxiety can also arise when we’re not living our lives closely to our values.  When we feel anxiety in this way, it pushes us to examine our deepest values and return us to a state of authenticity.

5) Regret & Disappointment

Regret is a response to thinking about what we could have been, if only we’d done something differently.  It’s what brings athletes back to a higher level of competition; they think back about a move they could have done differently and they then work on it repeatedly until they improve, increasing their chance of future victory.  We are evolved to see the error in our ways, sometimes in uncomfortable detail, which can induce us to learn more quickly and pay more attention in the future.  Like shame and embarrassment, regret leads us to want to fix a mistake, whether it’s apologizing to a friend or returning an impulse buy.  Interestingly, psychologists Laura King and Joshua Hicks found that regret is necessary for developing into a mature adult.  When we think about our lost possible selves (who we “could have been”) this helps deepen our personality’s maturity and complexity.  People with this maturity can tolerate ambiguity, be more empathic, form strong relationships and be more open to the nuances of daily life.

6) Confusion & boredom

Confusion often leads to frustration, especially if we’re perplexed by a problem that we can’t crack.  Confusion helps us slow down and take a more methodical approach, helping us solve complex problems.  The frustration caused by confusion can help us fight through the problem when we’re tempted to quit.  Boredom can push us to search for more interesting problems; the benefit of this is that it can fuel creativity.

7) Sadness & Grief

Sadness is a response to real or potential loss, and signals that restoration or change is needed.  Sadness also serves as a signal to others that we might need help.  When we’re in grief, sadness can help others respond to us and come closer, leading us to heal.

If you find your mind whizzing, philosophizing, or arguing with several points of this blog, that’s understandable.  If we find ourselves stuck within an unsettling emotion we can, at the very least, remind ourselves that feeling this way means that we have a heart and that we care.  And this is what it means to be human and to be alive.