Imagine yourself as a child. When you’re hungry, you cry and someone feeds you a nutritious meal. Or when you fall and hurt yourself, you scream and someone runs to your side, lovingly trying to help.
As you grow older, negative experiences occur, such as a friend turns on you and gets other kids to turn on you, too. You feel awful, so you tell an adult that you feel bad. Their wisdom helps you understand that something bad DID happen and that your emotions aren’t wrong. Your feelings are meant to show you how you to take appropriate action to stand up for yourself.
When a caring person guides you through a tough situation, you learn to recognize an unpleasant feeling. You pay attention to your negative emotions, because you understand they are key to your growth. In other words, they help you detect basic needs and warn you of boundary violations. Thus, negative emotions aren’t to be avoided. In fact, they help lead you toward healthy self-care and wise decision making.
But, what if you never learned the value of your negative emotions?
For instance, what if you cried as a child but no one paid attention? What if you got bullied at school, but came home to an empty house with no one to offer compassion? Maybe a misguided adult even told you, “It’s all YOUR fault.”
In that case, you might assume your broken heart is a burden that you must shoulder alone. You might tell yourself, “Heartache is silly—who really cares?” or “Get over it! Life is hard, so just deal with it.”
The problem is that ignoring those your negative emotions doesn’t make them go away.
Instead, they will just get lodged even more deeply inside of you. If no one taught you how to understand your negative emotions, one of two things likely happened:
1.) You learned to numb them with food, entertainment, substances, or overworking.
2.) You developed strong protectors such as armoring up with angry, critical views of other people.
Those coping tactics helped you survive as a kid. But they are not serving you now. They keep you from forging strong, healthy connections with others. And, they keep you from healing the pain that’s lodged deep inside of you.
That’s why your negative emotions are key to your growth—they signal a need or a wound that might need tending.
Do you notice any of the following negative feelings in your life:
—a constant sense of worry
—an angry temper you can’t shake
—a desire to critique or perfect everything (or everyone) around you
—frequent feelings of of shame or fear
—loneliness, no matter how many friends you now have.
Don’t hate these negative emotions—they’re trying to help you in some way. They’re a cue that some aspect of yourself needs loving attention.
Instead of hating yourself for having negative emotions, start to get curious about them:
I wonder what that anger is about. What role does it play?
How long have I been a worrier? When did it start?
What do I fear might happen if I let go of a need to be perfect for one day?
As you get curious about your negative emotions and treat them with compassion, they’ll soften. You’ll
—guide yourself through them instead of denying them.
—get to the root of lies you’ve believed and start to gain clarity.
—develop what psychologists call the ability to “self-regulate” and what the Bible calls the fruit of “self-control.”
—learn how and when to act on an emotion and when to let go.
—develop wisdom from deep down inside.
Your negative emotions don’t have to rule you; freedom comes as you get curious about them and treat them with compassion. You can become that wise adult for yourself—you can calm your emotions and learn better strategies.
For the Spirit God gave us does not make us timid, but gives us power, love and self-discipline.—2 Timothy 1:7
Thank you for this! It’s really helpful. I’m just curious if this also applies to someone who has a mental illness?
Alison Cook says
Hi Saab, yes, this material is based on an evidence-based model of therapy called Internal Family Systems. Most major models of therapy emphasize the importance of processing emotions in a compassionate way in order to help them heal and soften. If you’ve had trauma or struggle with mental illness – or if you’re working through emotions for the first time – you may want to start by working with a professional.