The Problem of Good v. Bad Emotions

Written by
Michael Wells

The Problem of Good v. Bad Emotions

Written by
Michael Wells

The Problem of Good v. Bad Emotions

Written by
Michael Wells
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QUESTION
"What is the most self-destructive emotion?"

There is no such thing as a self-destructive emotion.

Think about it- why would humans evolve a mechanism that is designed to harm us?

All emotions are useful, healthy things.  Every one of them. Even the uncomfortable ones, like anger, fear, doubt, pain, shame…

However - it is possible for us to respond to our emotions in unhealthy ways, and we often do.

Rethinking Emotions

Emotions are generally divided into two categories, which we describe as "pain", and "pleasure".

Pleasurable emotions are a reward for us doing what our brain thinks is best for us. For example, taking a bite of that pizza... our brain thinks wow, yep good calories there. Eat that and we won't starve. We also feel pleasure when people show us appreciation and respect, we win an award, we find a place where we feel safe. Our brain rewards us.

Painful emotions are a provocation to take action. Our brain want us to do something. These emotions feel very different, but are widely ranged. Physical pain, such as touching a hot stove, is an example of pain-provoking-action. Emotions work the same way. Feel lonely? Go make friends. Feel bored? Go do something to improve your life. Feel insecure? Create security. See a pizza? Crave that pizza.

It's important to note that the parts of our brains responsible for these emotions - the reptile and mammal parts, can't see the big picture. You'll crave that pizza, even though you're trying to lose weight. You'll crave that relationship with that person who is terrible to you.

How we Respond Unhelpfully

Often, we get confused about painful emotions, and why we're feeling them.

We think that we've already done something wrong, or that there is nothing we can do. Or we exaggerate the problem with our powerful imagination.

In these cases, we often make poor decisions.

Here are three examples of ways that we often respond unhelpfully to our emotions.

  1. We feel shame- the perception that an emotion such as anger is wrong and that we should not be feeling it.
  2. We suppress emotions- ignoring those that we don't enjoy or feel unable to resolve
  3. We amplify emotions- by overthinking them

Emotional Shame

Emotional shame is the idea that feeling a particular emotion is wrong. A common example is anger.  Many people are taught that anger is bad, even though it’s one of the most powerful and useful emotions you have.

No emotions are wrong - in fact they are a fundamental, essential part of what make you who you are. They motivate every decision you make, even the rational ones.

The key is to understand what each emotion is for, and action it's trying to tell you to do. The sooner you take that action, the more quickly that emotion switches off.

Suppressing Emotions

The whole point of an emotion is to draw your attention to something your brain thinks is important - and to motivate you to do something about it.

If you try to ignore it, the emotional part of your brain just says “this idiot isn’t listening, let’s make this louder.” Your mind will continually dial up the volume until you're deaf, and eventually the emotion overwhelms you.

Often this we suppress emotion when we feel emotional shame… but instead of making the emotion go away, the emotion intensifies and-

… anger becomes rage.

… sadness becomes depression.

… fear becomes paranoia.

Never suppress your emotions. You're avoiding something important- and they will just become stronger.

Amplifying Emotions

Often when we feel an emotion, our thoughts immediately try to explain it.

"I feel nervous in this social situation", and then we consciously try to imagine every thing that could go wrong, to explain our anxiety.

It seems logical- if you can see the worst-case-scenario, then you can avoid it, right?

However there's a big problem with this- your emotional mind is watching these thoughts, and reacting to your imagined problems as well. It was a little anxious at the beginning. Now it's massively anxious about the situation, because it's just been confronted with 100 terrifying scenarios.

We call this "overthinking."

The clearest example of this is the child who hears a noise, and then imagines a monster in the closet, or under their bed. Soon they're imagining it. What it looks like. The idea that it's waiting for a tasty kid-snack. Very quickly, the emotions are amped up out of control. "MOOOOOOOOOOOMMMMMM!!!!!!"

Don't overthink your emotions. Your goal is to feel an emotion, and respond as quickly, accurately, and effectively as you can, with an action. I'm not suggesting that you react "thoughtlessly"- but dwelling on that action is likely amplify them and make your response harder.

Getting Better at Emotions

It’s well-worth developing a good understanding of your emotions, and what they are trying to motivate you to do. Often, all you need to do is carefully examine an emotion, and understand what is triggering it.  Journaling is great for this, as is talking with a friend or coach.

Whatever you do, don’t suppress them, and don’t divide them into categories of good and bad.

Every emotion you have is important, and helpful when you use it properly.

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First published on 
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November 11, 2018

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      Addendum

      Originally answered on Quora.

      Here's a well-written breakdown to help you process and deal with difficult emotions;

      https://kidshealth.org/en/teens/stressful-feelings.html