The Myth of Negative Emotions is of course related to The Myth of Positive Emotions
In my work with emotions, I focus on the intelligence, gifts, and skills that every emotion brings to you. I don’t leave any emotions out, and I don’t treat any emotion as better or worse than any other.
Emotions evolved over millions of years to help us become socially successful primates, and every single one of them is vital to our functioning.
I’ve discovered over the last five decades of study, research, and practice that emotions are essential to everything we do, everything we think, everything we learn, and everything we are.
We can’t leave any of them out if we want to live whole lives with all of our skills and all of our intelligence intact.
But sadly, leaving some emotions out and focusing too much attention on others is the essence of the emotional education most of us receive.
Instead of learning how to work with the genius inside all of our emotions, we’re taught to suppress or run from the allegedly negative ones, and to overemphasize or attempt to imprison the allegedly positive ones.
But that’s a GIGO mistake
Treating emotions as negative or positive always leads to what my computer programmer friends call the GIGO mistake (Garbage In, Garbage Out). If you input a bad string of code into your program, your program either won’t work, or it will do something very screwy. Garbage in, garbage out.
When I teach about emotions, I focus on four GIGO ideas that will pretty much guarantee emotional confusion and emotional incompetence.
The first and most wildly mistaken idea is that there are positive or negative emotions
If you believe that there are positive or negative emotions (as most psychological and neurological theory does), you won’t be able to understand emotions clearly, and you won’t be able to develop a full range of emotional skills.
The myth of negative (or positive) emotions will actually make you less emotionally skilled, less competent, less functional — and in the long run, less happy.
The completely wrong things everyone knows about emotions
There are four commonly accepted ideas about emotions that actually prevent you from being able to work with your own emotions — or anyone else’s — intelligently:
- The myth of valencing (imagining that there are positive or negative emotions, or pro-social or anti-social emotions).
- The tendency toward expression and repression (having only two options for working with your emotions, both of which can cause trouble).
- The lack of nuance (not understanding that emotions arise in a multitude of intensities, and are present in your every waking moment).
- The confusion about quantity (not realizing that it is completely normal for emotions to arise in pairs, groups, and clusters).
In this excerpt from my book The Art of Empathy, we’ll look at the deeply mistaken, GIGO idea of valencing.
Valencing is a way to separate things into exclusive categories, and emotions are valenced in two ways: they’re categorized as positive or negative, or they’re framed as pro-social or anti-social. So instead of being viewed as vital aspects of your cognitive abilities, emotions have been separated into categories that have come to mean good versus bad, wanted versus unwanted, or nice versus mean.
Here’s the problem: If you believe that emotions are positive or negative, you’ll tend to focus on the allegedly positive ones and avoid the allegedly negative ones – and you won’t develop a full range of emotional or social skills.
You might be able to work skillfully with the emotions you identify as positive, but you might be clueless about the emotions you identify as negative.
How valencing gets in your way
For instance, when everything is going well and people are happy, you might feel comfortable, but when people are angry, or afraid, or depressed, you might not know what to do. You might want to run away, you might want people to suppress those emotions — or you might work very hard make everyone happy again, whew!
You’ll want to do anything besides feel or work with those allegedly negative emotions.
And if you believe that emotions are pro-social or anti-social, you’ll think that only a few emotions are acceptable in your relationships; therefore, when supposedly anti-social emotions such as envy or depression arise, you may become shocked or destabilized, and you may view yourself and others in ways that actually reduce your social and emotional intelligence.
You may think, for instance, that people are trustworthy only when they display emotions that you approve of (such as happiness or joy); but that people who display emotions you don’t like (such as grief or anger) should be avoided, shamed, or changed.
How valencing reduces your emotional skills
If you valence emotions, you’ll also lose awareness of and access to a great number of the skills your emotions bring to you.
If you believe that there are positive and negative emotions, you won’t be able to develop a full range of emotional skills. Valencing emotions will actually make you less skilled, less competent, and less functional.
When any of these emotions are necessary – when any of their skills are required – then each of these emotions is the most positive emotion possible. When any emotion is necessary and appropriate, it’s always positive (if you really need to use that word).
If you had inserted one of the positively valenced emotions – such as happiness – into the place of the emotions above, you’d see something very negative indeed, because happiness, which helps you look forward with delight and amusement, can’t do what the other emotions do. It has its own job!
Happiness is a wonderful emotion! But so are anger, fear, shame, grief, sadness, anxiety, jealousy … all emotions are positive and necessary when you need them, and all emotions are negative and problematic if they arise at the wrong time.
Valencing can create inappropriate responses
For instance, if you’re at a funeral, happiness is completely inappropriate – you need your grief to help you mourn your losses. At a funeral, grief is the positive and pro-social emotion, and happiness is negative and anti-social.
Of course, emotions move and change during a funeral, and it’s normal to cry, and then laugh, and then smile, and then cry again – but pasting an unchangeably happy smile on your face during a funeral is not pro-social.
Or let’s look at the lifesaving emotion of panic – if a car is veering directly toward you on the freeway, happiness would probably lead to injury, because you need the lightning-fast instincts and intuitive actions of panic to get yourself to safety. In a situation of immediate physical danger where panic is required to save your life, happiness is a ridiculous emotion – it’s completely negative and inappropriate.
So instead of valencing emotions into simple-minded either/or categories, the empathic approach is to observe all emotions as intelligent and evolved responses that are uniquely appropriate to specific situations.
Lifting the veil of valencing — and becoming emotionally competent
When you stop valencing emotions, you’ll learn to observe what’s truly going on – and you’ll learn how to experience emotions without demonizing them or glorifying them.
All emotions are necessary, because each one of them brings you gifts and skills that you can’t get anywhere else.
In this empathic approach to emotions, you learn to welcome all of your emotions (and the emotions of others) as valid and legitimate aspects of your social skills, empathy, cognition, and intelligence, because all emotions are necessary.
The valencing myth traps people — including very intelligent and accomplished people — in emotional incompetence. Valencing — which leads directly to emotional trouble and unnecessary suffering — is a perfect example of a GIGO (garbage in, garbage out) myth.
And understanding the myth of valencing is the first step on the pathway to emotional genius.
There is no such thing as a positive emotion or a negative emotion
All of your emotions are necessary.