Emotional wellness: Why dark emotions are just as important as warm & fuzzy ones
By Jeannine Moga, MA, MSW, LCSW, Chief Happiness Officer, VETgirl
Positive Psychology, which focuses on positive human functioning and the strengths that enable people to live meaningful and fulfilling lives, has been getting a lot of traction and a load of press – for good reason. Americans, as a whole, are a chronically stressed out (and increasingly unhappy) bunch, and we’re searching for anything that will uplift us. On the whole, I’m a big fan of Positive Psychology and its focus on positive emotions and experiences. Who couldn’t use a little (or a lot) more joy, contentment and satisfaction?
The danger comes when the messages of positive psychology are distilled into the shorter snippets most people consume (280 characters or less, anyone?). While I love reminders to cultivate moments of gratitude, joyful attention, and humor, I admittedly get a little worried when these reminders are misinterpreted as erasers for dark emotions and experiences. This is because understanding and attending to the dark emotions is equally important for our health and well-being.
Working with dark emotions feels dicey because they – anger, rage, grief, and fear among them -- usually make us really, really uncomfortable. Most of us want those feelings to go away pronto, whether we feel them emerging from within us or experience them spilling out from a co-worker or client. Dark emotions can be frightening in their intensity, heavier in weight, and tougher to shake. Our difficulty working with these emotions is likely linked to all of the ways we try to smother, ignore, drown, and otherwise eliminate the feelings we’d rather not have. [Can I have my angst with a side order of pinot noir, please?] And self-destructive self-soothing leads to a whole other bucket of problems.
But here’s the thing: ALL emotions (even the dark ones) are an important part of the human experience. Science has shown that there are seven emotional systems in the brain that result in both primary emotions (such as happiness, surprise, sadness, fear, anger, and disgust) and secondary emotions (the emotional response to having an emotion, such as feeling ashamed about feeling angry). All emotions are messages about what we need and what we need to do. As such, emotions drive our behavior, influence our thinking, and either narrow or broaden our attention. If we consider all emotions to be important signals, they not only feel less threatening, but also give us a clue about what to do when we feel them. And it’s the doing that brings us relief.
A few caveats are necessary here. First, the emotional brain isn’t always accurate – it sometimes confuses “similar” with “same,” so our emotional responses don’t always fit the circumstance. If you’ve had a coworker fly off the handle after mis-interpreting something you said or did, chances are good the emotional brain was at work. Related, the emotional brain’s connection to the prefrontal cortex (where reasoning, problem-solving, and emotional regulation reside) is not always stable. In times of great stress, the PFC might be “off-line” and unavailable for immediate intervention. As a result, we might have to work extra hard to identify, and manage, our emotions when we are overwhelmed, exhausted, or otherwise saturated. Learning to pause, breathe, and ask yourself, “What am I feeling? And what do I need in this moment?” can help, particularly when the emotions – and stakes – are high.
Another important note: as much as we sometimes want to block out the dark emotions, it is impossible to do that without also blocking out the more positive aspects of our experience. Unfortunately, self-protective barriers do not have the capacity to selectively filter out *just* the things we don’t like. Instead, engaging the entire emotional spectrum enables us to pick up on clues about what we need both more and less of in our lives. And here’s the paradox: the beauty of being human is that we are capable of holding multiple, sometimes conflicting, emotions in the same hand. We can feel grief and relief, joy and angst, or fear and hope simultaneously. Perhaps that’s the trick, then: to cultivate the capacity to balance the dark and the light without minimizing either of them or getting lost in the shadows. After all, it is the capacity to feel, and transform, our emotions that builds resilience. And isn’t that what we’re after, after all?