The first key to emotional genius

There are no positive or negative emotions

As we study emotions empathically, we look at each emotion in terms of what it does, what gifts it brings to you, and how you can work with it. And in order to do that, there are four vital keys that can help you unlock the genius in your emotions.

The first key: Unvalence the emotions

All of your emotions have important messages for you, and all of them bring you the skills and energy you need in each situation.

Even though the way you work with emotions can have positive or negative outcomes, the emotions themselves are not good or bad.

The problem of valencing

Organizing emotions (or anything) into positive and negative categories is called valencing. You may remember organizing atoms in chemistry class into positive and negative categories so that you could build molecules that were balanced electrically.

Emotions are valenced in this same simplistic way, but it’s an absolutely terrible idea. Emotions aren’t atoms with electrical charges; they’re crucial aspects of awareness and cognition!

None of the emotions are oppositional to each other, and none of them cancel each other out.

Valencing emotions has made us mistakenly but neatly sew up the emotions, and in so doing, we’ve sewn ourselves right into a straitjacket.

Anyone who feels anything other than the light and fresh-scented emotions is, by association, bad.

This simplistically valenced, good/bad system imprisons so many of us: we who are angry, we who are grieving, we who are fearful, we who feel shame – many of us with legitimate emotional realities are pushed out of the way to make room for the perky and the superficial.

As a result, many deeply emotional people languish on the fringes because, even though we’ve categorized and valenced the heck out of emotions, we still don’t treat emotions – or the people who feel them – intelligently.

Your emotions are unique — and essential

Each emotion – in its own unique way – is essential to your cognition, your capacity to understand and act, your social skills, and your well-being.

Unfortunately, we’ve all been taught that emotions are good versus bad, positive versus negative, or prosocial versus antisocial. But these are merely invented categories; they don’t belong to the emotions.

Instead, these categories are often attempts at social control: the allegedly good positive emotions are the ones that support the status quo and make us easy to be around, while the allegedly bad negative emotions are the ones that shake things up.

The allegedly good emotional states are happiness, contentment, joy, and some forms of sadness or grief (if an appropriately saddening situation has occurred, and if it has occurred within a recent time frame).

Anger dips a little toe into the good category when it’s a response to injustice, but the acceptable time frame for anger is a lot shorter than that allowed for sadness or grief. Notice how some people will let you grieve a senseless death for a lot longer than they’ll let you be angry about it.

The allegedly bad emotions category is very large indeed. Sadness that lasts too long (or deepens into despair or grief ) is bad. Depression is bad, but suicidal urges are emergency-room bad. Anger is bad, as are peevishness, righteous indignation, and wrath. Rage and fury, then, are extra-strength bad. Hatred, we won’t even go into.

Jealousy is bad, bad, bad. Fear is so bad we’ve got bumper stickers that shout to others that we, at least, haven’t got any fear – not a drop! So all of the fear-based emotions are bad, too.

Anxiety and worry are bad, and panic is call-the-hospital bad. Shame and guilt – they’re so bad that we don’t even know what they mean anymore! We’re trained to express or, more often, repress our emotions so that other people will feel comfortable. 

But there are no negative emotions

All of the allegedly negative emotions are vital parts of your awareness, your ability to make meaning, and your ability to understand the world.

But sadly, many people think that joy and happiness are the only healthy emotions, which is nonsense.

Joy and happiness can only exist in relation to all of the emotions; they’re a boxed set.

We can’t just pick and choose our emotions. That would be like picking and choosing certain glands and organs (I want only my heart and brain – none of those gooey digestive organs) or deciding to walk using only the two most attractive toes on each foot.

Joy and happiness are lovely in their place, but they’re not better than fear, anger, grief, sadness, or any other emotion. Each emotion has its own valid place in our lives.

Joy and happiness are just two states in a rich and brilliant continuum of emotions.

The gifts of unvalencing your emotions

Book and audiobook covers for The Language of EmotionsWhen you can stop valencing, you’ll learn to empathically respond to what’s actually going on – and you’ll learn how to observe emotions without demonizing them or glorifying them.

In this empathic approach to emotions, you’ll learn to welcome all of your emotions (and the emotions of others) as valid and legitimate aspects of social skills, empathy, cognition, and intelligence, because all emotions are necessary.

Unvalencing emotions is a crucial first step to working with them skillfully. Unvalencing emotions will help you understand them, welcome them, and work with them empathically. 

And that’s a positive thing!


8 Responses

  1. Kate Riley
    | Reply

    As always, wonderful explanation(s) Karla! Many years ago, I did a series of workshops, and part of what we did was to randomly choose words representing “positive” and “negative” emotions. The task was to then find positive in the negative and vice versa. It was a very good exploration into how we can/need to use all of our emotions.

    • Karla
      | Reply

      Yeah Kate! Awesome point. The emotions are so wondrous, deep, and brilliant that I’m continually astonished that people are so distrustful and avoidant of them. People are funny!

  2. Kaitlyn
    | Reply

    Another amazing blog post. This is really brilliant. Thank you!

  3. Lorraine Faehndrich
    | Reply

    Hi Karla. I LOVE this post. Thank you for writing it! In my work with women who have pelvic pain, in order for them to relieve their pain they have to learn how to start allowing and feeling all of their emotions. Before I can help them do that, we inevitably have to get past all the beliefs they have about their emotions (as I did.). I really appreciate how clearly you’ve laid out these ideas and the explanation you’ve given of valencing. This article is a fantastic resource (As is your book. It is required reading for all of my clients). I am looking forward to reading your next posts. Thank you for all the amazing work you do!!!! Warmly, Lorraine

  4. kevin
    | Reply

    Hey Karla-

    can you by any chance tell me if I handled this situation well? I like how you say that knowing exactly what emotions people are going through is only half the equation, that the other half is what to Do about it. Action!

    Here’s what happened:

    At Wal Mart, a guy dropped a cheap toothbrush in the self checkout aisle and I only saw it after he had paid and was walking out. So i thought if i told him about it that would be a little passive aggressive because it might put him in an awkward position (does he wait in line again? or does he go in front of me and feel rushed….etc).

    So i bought the toothbrush for him (literally like 79 cents), and right when I was about to tell him what happened, i realized I’d made a mistake…

    Now he’s gonna feel ridiculously in debt to me because of the whole reciprocation heuristic thingy (even though it’s a cheap toothbrush, people can easily blow it way out of proportion and he’d feel like he owes me a car lol).

    So I simply told him he dropped this on his way out! BAM! Applied Empathy!

    I’m getting your book as soon as it comes out, but is this the kind of thing you do in your every day life as an empath? I feel like your first book definitely had a few examples and I’m hoping your next one is like that too!

    • Karla
      | Reply

      BAM! I like it! You read so much in the situation, and you acted so decisively to make another person’s life work, yay! The only change I’d make is to ask the guy what he wanted to do, though with this situation, where he was leaving the store, I don’t think you would have had the time.

      I’ve done something similar in grocery lines when someone has overbought and is going through their wallet in a panic, counting pennies into the hand of the angry checker and trying to figure out what to put back. I’ll throw some bills on the floor and say, “Oh, I think you dropped this.” Because paying outright would be kind, but totally unempathic, because it would embarrass the hell out of the person. Sometimes, we empaths have to be totally sneaky!

  5. Karly Randolph Pitman
    | Reply

    Hi Karla,

    Thank you for your work and insight here. We’re sharing your articles and books in my classes (I help men and women outgrow eating disorders and disordered eating with an emotion based approach.) Your approach to emotions is helpful.

    Interestingly enough, my teacher in developmental psychology, Dr. Gordon Neufeld, says that “emotions are the engine of maturation,” and that children (and adults!) need to have access to and to feel the wide range of emotion to grow, mature and to reach their full human potential. This includes “negative” emotions.

    His theory on anxiety (what he calls alarm) actually specifies that there are times we need to feel and heed the feeling of alarm, because it moves us to caution. I thought that might interest you, to know there are others in other circles who are teaching similar ideas.

    Warmly, Karly

    • Karla
      | Reply

      Hello Karly and thank you for the work you do! And thanks for letting me know about Dr. Neufeld’s work. I was just reading something about emotional maturation in adults that mirrors what Neufeld is saying (I think it was Damasio) — essentially that the capacity to feel more emotions relates to social and emotional maturity. Excellent!

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