Negative emotions are not created equally. Some are healthy, and when we get in touch with them and experience them deeply, it becomes a healing experience. Unhealthy emotions are more like bad habits–the more we indulge them, the worse we feel, and experiencing them does not lead to healing.
Healthy emotions are responses to actual situations and events in our lives. They tend to be short-lived. They dissipate after we experience them. They are healthy in the sense that it is important for us to feel them and express them. Unhealthy emotions are responses to our own distorted thinking. They are based on a story we tell ourselves that is not true. Unhealthy emotions don’t dissipate when we experience them. The more we experience them, the more habitual they become.
Here are some examples of healthy and unhealthy emotions:
Healthy Emotion: A loved one dies and we feel grief. The grief is a response to an actual situation–a death. The grief will dissipate over time as we grieve. Unhealthy Emotion: A loved one dies and we feel grief, but we also have a story associated with the grief. The story may be that we should have been there for them. We feel guilty for not taking care of them the way we thought we should. Stories of guilt can keep the grief going for years. Another negative story after the loss of a loved one is one of self-pity. “Now I will be alone in my life. I will never find another person like her. My life will be miserable.” This negative story can keep people depressed for years.
Healthy Emotion: Someone treats us badly and we feel hurt and angry. This healthy emotion will be temporary if we feel it and let it pass. Unhealthy Emotion: We are hurt and angry at someone and we turn it into a story of unfairness and resentment. Now the anger lasts for a long time. That’s all we have to do is think of the story of unfairness and resentment to bring up the feeling. The emotion does not dissipate until we let go of the negative story.
Emotions are responses to how we judge the events around us. This judgment is a story that matches reality or it does not. If the story is true, then emotions tend to be healthy and short-lived. If the story doesn’t match reality then we can create negative emotions for ourselves that don’t go away.
Some people can create negative stories about how they are as a person. These stories lead to a lot of pain. Many people feel that they are essentially bad, or that they are incompetent, or that they are unlovable. When we tell ourselves such things we have a hard time being successful in the world with our relationships and our work. It can also lead us to do self-destructive behaviors.
When you are feeling a negative emotion, give some time to examine the story that it is based on. Make sure you don’t take a healthy emotion and turn it into a story that will cause you unnecessary pain.