Emotions aren’t good or bad – they’re useful!6 min read


A spot of emotional confusion

You’ve probably heard about positive and negative emotions.  Joy, pride and love are all positive emotions, while anger, fear and disgust are all negative.  I’ve heard it said countless times:  if you have any sense, you’ll stick with the positive ones and do everything you can to banish the negative ones.  But that’s unsound advice.  This antipathy towards negative emotions is based on a curious misunderstanding about what we mean by positive and negative emotions – and it’s something that can have serious consequences if we leave it unchecked.

Valence, not value

At the heart of this misunderstanding about positive and negative emotions is a muddled association of positive with ‘good’ and negative with bad’.  Anger’s negative, so it’s bad. Right?  Wrong, and here’s why.

When we talk about positive or negative emotions, what we’re actually talking about is whether the emotion in question has a positive or negative valence.  Valence refers to the intrinsic attractiveness/ goodness (positive valence) or averseness/ badness (negative valence) of this situation, event, or thing I’m confronted with.  So, in fact, it’s not the emotion that’s positive or negative – it’s the initial stimulus.  Emotions with a negative valence are actually trying to warn us that something’s up and motivate us to get away.  But somehow along the way, we’ve grown lazy – because, after all, it’s easier to say ‘negative emotion’ than ‘emotion with a negative valence’.

Some people say fear or anger are negative because they feel uncomfortable or unpleasant, while joy and optimism must be positive because they feel great!  But, again, this misses the point.  Emotions like fear or disgust or anger do feel viscerally different, even uncomfortable – but that’s because they’re trying to grab our attention so we can act on the warning they’re firing up.  If we dismiss the signal because it feels bad – and, besides that, the emotion is negative – what are we missing out on?

So what are emotions?

Although we still lack a settled definition of what emotions are, there’s broad agreement that emotions are a complex of neurophysiological sensations, psychological construction and behavioural responses.  Emotions also vary across cultures, so emotions are presumably socially constructed, at least to a degree.

If I ask you what sadness feels like, you’ll likely feel a pang of emptiness, your eyes might begin to tear up, and you’ll maybe hold your hand to your chest.  I don’t know how your sadness feels for you – anymore than you’ll feel myexperience of sadness – but we all recognise it when we see it and feel it.

If, in contrast, I ask you to describe the emotion liget, you’ll probably struggle.  And that’s not your fault – it’s an emotion that’s specific to the Ilongot tribe in the Philippines.  Liget resembles ‘High Voltage’ and it has no analogue elsewhere in the world.  This tells us that emotions can also be culturally constructed.

Emotions are useful!

While we haven’t quite decided what emotions are, the reason we have emotions is much clearer.  In a very basic sense, emotions are sources of data – information that communicates something about what’s going on for us – that serve as a prompt for action.

If I take some food from the fridge and there’s a whiff of something nasty, then disgust will fire up and warn me not to eat the rotten food because I’ll get sick.  Interpersonal disgust serves a similar purpose but, instead of rotten food, it’s in response to rotten people whose behaviour is in some way toxic and capable of causing us harm.

Anger, despite its very bad reputation, sends a signal that we’re in danger, are facing a threat, or have experienced some kind of injustice.  There’s a long history of women being shamed for their anger⁠1, while male anger is often conflated with violence and aggression.   While too many men are violent and aggressive – the femicide census stands as a terrible reminder – not all male anger is about violence or aggression.  Or, to put it another way, some expressions of anger are entirely legitimate, while others are absolutely not.  And, to the earlier point:  women have as much right to anger us any of us.  That shouldn’t need saying, but I will continue to say it – every single day.

And as well as that….

Emotions prompt us to take action, help us make decisions⁠2, remind us of what matters, and perhaps most importantly to understand each other.  I see you’re sad and come to comfort you, you see I’m beaming and share in my joy.  Being able to interpret each other’s emotional experience is a key element of human connectivity, and helps us makes sense of what’s going on in interpersonal situations⁠3.  To ignore these interpersonal emotion cues is to ignore a significant dimension of our social experience.

Ignore your emotions at your peril!

If you’re ignoring emotions with a negative valence because you’ve come to  think of them as bad and worth suppressing, what are the consequences for you?  If you strip out the value judgment – good or bad – and just think of emotions as data, then what happens if you ignore the data?

In the case of disgust, you might just carry on and eat that spoiled food and give yourself a dose of food poisoning; with interpersonal disgust, you might carry on hanging around or staying in a relationship with the rotten person whose behaviour is in some way toxic.  If you ignore or dismiss your anger, then the threat remains or the injustice continues.  And even when we ignore our emotions, they don’t go away.  They’ll still be metaphorically knocking on the door, asking for some kind of response.

Be my light, be my guide

If we strip away the value judgements, it turns out that our emotions are an important and helpful guide – to be ignored at our peril.   If I pay attention to my fear rather than avoiding it or denying it, I can then deal with whatever’s elicited it in the first place.  On the same note, if I pay attention to my anger I can identify the situation, event or thing that caused it – and take appropriate action.

Some people say negative emotions can persist too long, and sometimes that may be true.  But sometimes these emotions persist not because there’s a problem with the person who’s sad or hurt or angry, but because the problematic situation they’re in persists.  So, don’t change your emotions – perhaps instead think about changing your situation.

The ancient Greek playwright Sophocles encouraged us not to shoot the messenger, and this applies to emotions too.  If we shoot the messenger – and ignore our emotions – then we might overlook the message. It’s much healthier to listen to what they’re saying and act upon them instead!

Notes

1 Harriet Lerner’s The Dance of Anger is the go-to book on women and anger.

2 Neuroscientist Antonio Damasio’s research with patients who have sustained Acquired Brain Injuries demonstrated that people with flattened affect make poor decision-makers  because emotions helps us choose between one preference and another.

3 The mirror neuron system is a network of specialised neurons that enable us to interpret other people’s emotion and behaviour.  Psychopaths have an impaired mirror neuron system, as evidence d in the absence of empathy for others.

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