- Rafael Elias / Getty Images
- There are certain emotions we think of as negative such as shame, jealousy, and guilt.
- Some of these are likely to be heightened right now due to the coronavirus pandemic.
- But these emotions can actually be useful, because they highlight areas of our life where we need to make changes.
- Rather than fearing emotions and letting them overwhelm, we can learn to use them for good.
- Visit Insider’s homepage for more stories.
Humans have a wide spectrum of emotion, but we don’t always enjoy the things we feel. Anxiety, shame, jealousy, and sadness aren’t feelings we aspire to experience, so they have a pretty negative reputation for making us feel bad.
Worries are at the forefront and anxieties are heightened right now due to the coronavirus pandemic, but we don’t always have the feelings that threaten to overwhelm us.
“We often feel like we’re going to get overwhelmed by our negative emotions,” psychologist Perpetua Neo told Insider. “People with borderline personality disorder do have a hard time regulating their emotions, but for most of us, we can.”
But the problem is we don’t realise we can regulate ourselves, she said, and if our panic, anxiety or whatever feeling it is spikes all the way up, we can easily fall into catastrophe mode – letting our minds jump to the worst possible conclusions.
People often try to be over-rational, Neo added, because they don’t want to allow their emotions to take over and be seen as someone who over-reacts or cries all the time.
“It’s this whole vicious cycle that happens when we oppress our feelings,” she said. “The perspective shift would be working out how your emotions can play together with your rationality. That actually works much better.”
Neo calls it playing a symphony. You’re not going to enjoy every emotion, but it is possible to learn to reframe your mind and work with your feelings, rather than against them.
Here are five emotions we perceive as negative, and how we can actually learn to use them for good.
If you’re angry, it’s often because you’re feeling a sense of injustice, said Neo. Younger people tend to have a lot of anger, and it’s sometimes let out in protests and marches. But as you grow older, you may find you don’t have as much of a drive to be outraged as you used to.
You’ll still get mad, though, and it’s just as important to channel it properly.
“Anger is a really great fuel for creating a sense of justice,” said Neo. “So ask yourself, what is the injustice in this? If it’s a real injustice what can I do about it?”
We all have our little demons and it’s always worth understanding what the food source of this demon is, so you can starve it, she said.
Anxiety evolved in humans to teach us when to retreat from a situation where we’re facing conflict. It used to be the body’s natural reaction – the fight or flight response – warning us we’re in danger, but the reaction has carried into modern life even though we don’t have so many predators to face.
“Our bodies are not adapted to modern sources of anxiety,” said Neo. “And we also tend to be super cerebral, so what happens is our brains just go into overdrive with anxiety… You have to ask yourself, what is this inviting me to change in my life? What is it in me that I need to walk away from, that is causing me to be distressed and scared?”
Often it’s the thing you’re obsessing about a lot, like a bad relationship. Essentially, it’s your body telling you to get out of that situation.
“When you have your panic attacks, what is the first thought that comes into your head?” said Neo. “Because this thought is what your body is trying to tell you – I am not safe, I am trapped – it mirrors what’s happening.”
Anxiety, as long as it’s not a disorder that takes over your whole life, can shine a light on what you need to change.
Jealousy is a complicated emotion, but it’s basically an invitation to ask ourselves what you’re unhappy about in a situation, Neo said.
“We tend to get more jealous of people who are more similar to us,” she said. “So we are more jealous of, say, your friend you went to school with than Bill Gates, because maybe you’re from the same background and you think you’re supposed to be where they are.”
Feeling jealous doesn’t mean you’re a bad person, but it can lead to resentment. The best way to reframe jealousy is through honesty – asking yourself “how can I get to where I want to be?”
“If I’m jealous of my friend based on her social media feed, can I be really objective without wishing him or her bad?” said Neo. “Maybe there are pieces of his or her life that aren’t perfect too, and that’s ok.”
Guilt is sometimes strongly linked to empathy. It’s the feeling of tension for doing something, or failing to do something, so often it’s all about your obligations.
“If you have not done something, ask yourself, what is this guilt telling me about what I need to change in my life?” Neo said. “Or maybe it’s telling you you do too much. How can you reframe this guilt?”
If you’re feeling guilty all the time, every day, ask yourself why. It’s simply impossible to help everyone, so it shouldn’t fall on your shoulders every time.
“It’s about asking yourself, where am I feeling over obliged, where does this come from?” said Neo. “Often it’s linked to where you’re not taking care of yourself. So ask yourself, how can I have more empathy for myself?”
Misplaced shame is dangerous. In some cases, intense shame can create dark personality types like narcissists, because they drive their self-hatred inwards and put on a grandiose front to protect themselves.
Shame is all about your identity and feeling tension about yourself and who you are.
“Often, it tends to be super magnified in our heads and we feel bad for essentially our identity,” said Neo. “So when we feel shame, it’s an invitation to examine our lives and the way we see ourselves.”
Shame can help us step back and see the different ways we’re needlessly attacking ourselves. For instance, our mental health struggles, or our relationship problems.
Sometimes, examining the shame can make us realise it’s not our own voice that’s criticizing us, but someone from the past.
“Shame is also an invitation for forgiveness, because a lot of the time we never forgive ourselves,” Neo said. “Like, when I was seven years old I did this thing and I’m still ashamed of myself. And it’s not a really good thing to be holding on to by the time you are 35. That’s 28 years. It’s really tiring.”
Don’t explain your emotions away
The worst thing you can do with a negative emotion is push it down. Neo said this will just make it come out fiercer and stronger later on.
If you keep your feelings down and they explode, it’s only going to make you more afraid of them.
“You don’t want to try to be over-rational, or what I call cognitive photoshopping your negative emotions,” Neo said. “Because that’s actually a recipe for disaster.”