Today’s post is the sixth in a series that I call “The 10 Most Useful Facts about Emotions”. I wrote this for a forthcoming book about parenting. I was trying to find a way to help parents appreciate what I call the emotional hazards of parenting. So, the 10 most useful emotion facts are applied to parenting but they can be used to better understand the emotional hazards of any relationship.
Fact #6: Negative Emotions Are Unpleasant and Normal
In his widely read self-help book, Harold Kushner asks: “Why do bad things happen to good people?” Many readers have found comfort in his premise that God doesn’t cause tragedy but God is a resource for those affected by tragedy.
I liked the book and think of it as a theological approach to understanding the phrase “stuff happens.” Kushner’s message is a heartfelt reminder that suffering is a normal part of human existence. The problem is that we live in a time and in a society that struggles with that notion. We tend to see heartache and suffering as abnormal, as something to be fixed or cured or solved. Because of advances in science, technology, and engineering, we’ve become very good at fixing, curing, and solving. Why suffer when there’s a solution to our problem?
The counter-argument is this: Just because we’re no longer being chased by saber-toothed tigers, bubonic plague, or attacking hordes doesn’t mean we can escape personal pain and suffering. Any number of things can befall us, from big tragedies to little hassles. We hate having to wait in line or on the phone, we don’t like worrying about work or family or health, and we don’t want to be sad or feel scared. We don’t like his tone or her sarcasm, we shouldn’t have to deal with rude people, and there’s absolutely no good reason we should be uncomfortable or miserable, even for a little while. Our basic assumption is that happiness is “normal” and we are frequently puzzled by its elusiveness.
But here’s a news flash: Negative emotions are normal.
We are biologically equipped to experience sadness, fear, anger, and disgust. These are a natural consequence of living in the world. In fact, we are programmed to experience bad emotions more so than good emotions.
Of the six basic emotions experienced by folks the world over, four are negative (anger, sadness, fear, disgust) and only two are positive (joy, surprise). The dominant role of negative emotions makes sense when you consider that bad feelings kept our prehistoric ancestors out of harm’s way; those who ignored bad feelings were less likely to survive. Today, ignoring or running from bad feelings won’t get you immediately killed, but it is an unhealthy way to spend your life.
What would change if your family came to accept bad feelings as a part of life? How would it be if you as the parent could develop the capacity to tolerate negative emotions, to feel your feelings and accept them? How many items could you cross off your internal to-do list if escaping negative emotions was no longer your goal? What would do with your time, once you’re out of your head and in the world?
I’m reminded of a comment that helped get my friend out of jury duty. He was called to a trial in which someone claimed to have been burned by coffee at a restaurant. The judge asked if anyone could not be impartial. My friend raised his hand, hoping this was his chance to be dismissed. The judge looked inquiringly toward my friend whose only response was, “Coffee’s hot.” I sometimes think of my friend when my patients are struggling to accept negative emotions. I imagine the snarky side of me saying, “Guess what? Negative emotions feel bad!”
Fortunately for my patients, I keep most of the snarky comments to myself. And I don’t mean to dismiss the emotional suffering of individuals with serious psychiatric problems. Few therapists, and certainly not me, would expect patients who suffer from a debilitating mental illness to simply suck it up and move on because those experiences are “normal”. Their emotional experiences are often not normal in the sense that their capacity for managing negative emotional experiences is likely constrained biologically (quicker to react, harder to soothe, slower to recover) compared to the average person.
But where many individuals (patients and therapists) can be misled is in how they approach the goal of better emotion management. Some try to eradicate negative emotions so life can be lived free of emotional discomfort. Far wiser is to recognize that healthy living is not about finding a way to escape negative emotions; it’s about finding a way to follow our values, even if we can’t control all that we feel.