Photo of positive (though clueless) bear

Are you positive about emotions?

As tan bear clearly shows us, if there’s one thing many people know about emotions, it’s the idea that there are positive ones and negative ones. But it’s not just silly cartoon animals that share this idea: In emotion research, the categorization of emotions into the two simple categories of positivity and negativity is called valencing.

Valencing theory tells us that there are two kinds of emotions: Positively valenced emotions are evoked when something is attractive to us, and negatively valenced emotions are evoked when something is aversive. There is also some attempt to valence emotions into the categories of pro-social, which is positive, and anti-social, which is negative. What’s funny is that when you start to question the criteria under which an emotion is valenced, the categories begin to fall apart almost immediately.

On page 26 in The Language of Emotions, I write:

The socially accepted view is that there are good emotions and bad emotions. These categories have a bit of interplay, but basically, good emotions are the ones that make us easy to be around, while bad emotions are the ones that shake things up.

That’s a bit of sarcasm on my part, but it’s not very far from the truth. What I have noticed in our emotional education is that there is a not-very-well-hidden aspect of social control in the valencing of emotions. The emotions that are classified as positive are, honestly, some pretty lightweight ones: happiness, contentment, joy, amusement, and other emotions in the area of happiness. These are fun, peppy emotions, and they make us feel good. Yay! They arise when we’re attracted to something. Yay! They can be pro-social, in that they help us connect to, empathize with, and understand and care about the rights and well-being of others. Yay!

But wait.

Caring about the rights and well-being of others requires more than happiness. Pro-social behavior requires more than just hope and happiness; it requires the sense of justice and fair play that anger, jealousy, and envy bring to the table; it requires the awareness of safety and hazard that fear alerts us to; it requires that we have the capacity for the self-monitoring and behavioral modification that authentic shame brings to us … in short, pro-social behaviors require the entirety of emotions, and not just the light and fresh-scented ones. The idea that you can valence emotions under the categories of pro-social and anti-social is too simplistic.

The concepts of attraction and aversion are also too simplistic. Sure, we’re generally attracted to things that make us happy, and generally aversive to things that make us feel disgust. BUT, many of us are attracted to things that frighten and anger us (see any internet comment board). We are attracted to scary movies, which help us feel fear.  We’re drawn toward people and issues that anger us (in some cases, only anger can get us to address an issue that we’d rather avoid).

And though fear is classified as a negative emotion in valencing theory, one of the chief functions of fear is to get us to orient in the direction of a hazard (or in the direction of a change in our environment). Fear’s purpose is to get us to treat a hazard or a change as a thing of intense interest; if we aren’t attracted to the fearful thing, we won’t be able to identify and respond to it.

Emotions are not simple things that fit into simple-minded categories. As you think about emotions, have you had experiences where a supposedly positive emotion wasn’t appropriate or useful — and have you had experiences where a supposedly negative emotion turned out to be the best possible response to the situation? I think we all have.

Be very careful about reifying simplistic valences. Emotions are not binary functions. Emotions are irreplaceable parts of cognition, social functioning, and survival; they’re not simply one thing or the other.
Photo of positive (though clueless) bear
In the book, I write about appropriate emotions, or emotions that are correct in specific situations. You can’t just organize emotions into two categories. If you want to understand emotions as an interconnected system (which is what they are), you have to observe and classify emotions in context. Knowing the language of emotions is a great first step!

However, if you don’t know the language of emotions, you can always look at trees. They’re pretty, aren’t they?

42 Responses

  1. Mo
    | Reply

    Excellent job (once again) of explaining why ALL emotions are necessary and healthy. Thank you. But I have to admit I was giggling at the utter LACK of emotion in the voices of the cartoon bears! Very cute.

    • Karla
      | Reply

      Hah, I know! It took me sooo much time to get the camera angles and pauses right so that the bears could seem to be having some emotions. However, it was great that the positive bear was so robotic. It made me laugh and laugh!

  2. Valencia Ray MD
    | Reply

    Emotions are very important. The issue/problem is our judgment about them. Perception is the issue, and the fact that we fear our feelings because of unconscious conditioning.

    • Karla
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      Thanks Valencia; you’re right about unconscious conditioning, but it’s also conscious and right out in the open, since emotion researchers themselves are holding onto these unfortunate ideas about emotions (to be fair, many are seriously questioning the validity of valencing). Sometimes at talks, I ask people to call out things they’ve been taught about emotions, and the shaming messages totally dwarf the constructive ones. Even the word emotional has a negative connotation, as in “Now, let’s not get emotional!” I always want to ask: “Which emotion do we not want to get here, because there’s like two dozen I could name right now.” Hah!.

  3. Terre Spencer
    | Reply

    Great post, Karla! Once again, you bring up an important dimension of our emotional lives. We have emotions and we have a whole reality around those emotions; how we think about how we feel, how our bodies respond to how we feel…yet, we frequently do not appreciate the richness of our emotional lives. We treat it as if it were less real than, say, the 6 p.m. news. How on earth could that be the case?

  4. Meta Hirschl
    | Reply

    Yes I love the bears – especially their eyes. I’ve been particularly thankful to shame lately. For me that was the one emotion that was just plain and simple bad. When I caught myself saying to my young daughter (20 yrs ago) “shame on you” I was horrified, both because it was my mother’s voice and also because I had come to believe, somehow, some subtly growing way, that shame was all wrong that never should we want anyone to feel shame, especially our children. Then as time went on I began to add these layers of confusion, like, when I did something that wasn’t healthy for my body (which is a form of violence to myself I believe) I would deep down feel shame, but then I would cover that with no, you are fine, you are good, you must reject negative self-talk…but NOW, with your great (and may I say seminal ground-breaking book) I say no, actually, that wasn’t healthy, I do actually feel shame, and next time I will avoid that action to avoid experiencing shame. I mean to say — that works! astonishing. Thank you.

    • Karla
      | Reply

      Meta, thanks for what you’ve written! You made me realize what’s up with a very troubled person I know, who keeps making worse and worse decisions, and everyone is just baffled by the mess. Now I get it: The person refuses to feel shame. It’s like the shame feels so dangerous that the person cannot get anywhere near it. So instead of sitting with shame and reviewing past mistakes, which would allow room for behavioral changes and much-needed mea culpas, the person is just trammeling downhill shamelessly. It’s like watching a car crash in slow motion, but if anyone even raises an eyebrow at the person, the defenses go up, and the conversation is over. Yow! Okay, but now that I know it’s a shame problem, I may figure out a way to address the person. Maybe. ;) Thanks again!

  5. Katrina
    | Reply

    Karla, I know someone like that, too. Someone who almost never apologizes or admits any wrongdoing, even when it really is his fault. I happen to know that he grew up with a physically abusive stepfather and a verbally abusive mother, who said, “You’re no good. You’re just like your father” (who left them when this man was a three-year-old child).

    Because of that “You’re no good” message, this man can’t face any of his own mistakes — even simple ones; for him, admitting that he’s made a mistake is the same as admitting that the “You’re no good” message is true.

    I had to do a lot of work on my own relationship with shame … especially when I returned to theatre as an adult. Acting is about putting on stage a lot of “shameful” stuff that we normally hide from people. I had to be willing to give up looking “perfect” to people … and learn to be willing to look like a complete fool.

    For example, I had never realized that I was terrified to say, “I don’t know,” until someone said to me, “You know, it’s okay to say ‘I don’t know.'”

    The moment I heard that, my stomach tightened, and I felt my shoulders tense up with fear. The next moment, I thought to myself, “I’m terrified to say, ‘I don’t know’ … but I think it would be really healthy for me to learn!”

    It took me about a year of letting myself say, “I don’t know” … and slowly learning not to cringe when I said it! But now I can say, “I don’t know” … and I’m fine with it.

    Theatre has been such a great place for me to come into a healthy relationship with my emotions … all my emotions!

  6. Terre Spencer
    | Reply


    My experience with addicts and trauma survivors reveals that a person’s refusal to feel shame is probably not at all conscious. It takes a LOT of recovery/therapy to get to a place that the shame reveals itself to the person who has crammed it all into their personal shadow.

    The irony is that such a person is shame-based and is deeply shamed, fearing a total overwhelm if even a shred of shame were allowed in the conscious psyche.

    So my guess is this is where boundaries and empathy join forces and create safety for us in the face of shame-less abuses AND we empathize that to have such rigid defenses that shame is kept unconscious, the person must be deeply agonized under all the chaotic, cruel behaviors.

    Please say more, Karla!

  7. Deborah
    | Reply

    Thank you Karla:

    Once again, you’ve illustrated brilliantly, how it serves us to stop thinking about emotions as good/bad, positive/negative, desirable/undesirable.

    This is so refreshing for those of us raised to be nice, happy, put on a smile; never to express anger, sadness, fear.

    Thanks again for your very important work. This is how we can begin to heal the pain of those many years of conditioning to repress those (labeled as inappropriate) emotion people weren’t comfortable with.

    I much prefer looking at my emotions now as “information” and your work has really helped me, and my clients with that.


  8. Katrina
    | Reply

    I truly wish more people viewed emotions as healthy, rather than categorizing them as “good” or “bad” — and only wanting the “positive” ones.

    I’m going through a really rough time right now, and what I want from people is acceptance of how I feel: frustrated, angry, sad, disappointed, scared, lonely, overwhelmed.

    But almost without exception, the people around me want to put a “happy face” on everything: “Oh, it’s not that bad. Things will turn out fine in the end. Focus on the positive. Focus on the good. Don’t be so down all the time.”

    But my emotions are telling me that things really are bad. I don’t believe in lying to other people — or lying to myself. I’d rather face what is going on, name it, and deal with it — and it’s not pretty stuff right now.

    Still, the idealistic side of me wonders sometimes if the world would be a better place if society, as a whole, was more accepting of emotions — all emotions.

    • Karla
      | Reply

      HI Katrina and everybody. Thanks for the great responses.

      Katrina, I too am going through rough times right now, and I know that people have a hard time seeing their friends and family in pain. Sometimes it’s extra sensitivity on their part, and sometimes they’re just trying to keep a happy face on for themselves. I often notice that people are so tenuous about their own ability to manage emotions that watching you go into the deep places scares them. Luckily, there are counselors and therapists who can listen and help. Do you have someone like that in your life?


  9. Deborah
    | Reply

    Wow, I sure agree with you Katrina, I too, wish society as a whole honored and valued emotional well being. And perhaps this is the start of that, what Karla is offering here?

  10. Simon
    | Reply

    did that video character (tan bear) say “ha-penis” ?! LOL ;-)

    • Karla
      | Reply

      Hah Simon! That’s what my husband Tino heard, too! I tried to go in and write the word phonetically, but I couldn’t stop the bears from talking about penises!

  11. Katrina
    | Reply

    Karla, I don’t have a counselor or a therapist in my life (on my meager salary, I wouldn’t be able to afford one anyway), but I do have a dear, close, trusted friend whose acceptance, empathy, and compassion are absolutely amazing and priceless to me.

    He’s been going through a rough time himself (we’re both dealing with toxicity in our workplaces, not being treated with honor or respect), but he called me last night, and we talked for an hour-and-a-half.

    He’s one of the very few people in my life who doesn’t panic when I burst into tears. Most people get completely flustered and start trying to get me to stop crying — which makes me feel like I have to “be strong” for everyone around me. Not with this dear friend. He’ll let me cry as often or as much or as deeply as I need to.

    I’ve been in “survival mode” for the last few weeks; one conversation with my friend, though, and I feel like I can breathe again. Nothing in the external situations I’m dealing with has changed … but something in me has shifted just enough that I feel like I can “pick up my sword and shield and face the battle again.”

    A friendship like that is a treasure of incomparable worth.

  12. Meta Hirschl
    | Reply

    Those bears have barely penis envy. oy, sorry couldn’t resist.

  13. Ravenelvenlady
    | Reply

    Excellent video validating the purpose of all emotions. Thank you.

  14. graham
    | Reply

    ….However, if you don’t know the language of emotions, you can always look at trees. They’re pretty, aren’t they?….

    Had to laugh when I read this, because I’ve spent the last 20 years working with, and constantly looking at, trees; REAL trees. And yes, I’ve also been looking to banish the ‘bad’ emotions, just like pinky bear!

    Our inner world really does create our outer world, doesn’t it?

    • Karla
      | Reply

      Hello Meta and Graham!

      The bears thank you for your comments. Trees are pretty!

      And so are emotions!

  15. Meta Hirschl
    | Reply

    Thank you, Karla, this was wonderful to watch and feel. I’ll link to it on my next blog to share with my yoga students/community. I had this epiphany the other day after a very difficult, sad, painful interaction. I was just feeling cracked open like a raw egg and, eventually, I kind of heard a voice, like this is beautiful, actually, because it’s real and authentically me. And then I realized in my body that was exactly true, and next, this is the miracle, I felt elation and freedom because as cracked as I felt, I’d survived. And if I can survive being a raw egg, hell, I can survive anything. Nothing to lose, No Time to Lose (to paraphrase Pema Chodron).
    Gratitude to you and the bears. Meta.

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