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The Myth of Negative Emotions

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.

This unified approach to emotions treats all emotions as vital, irreplaceable aspects of your neurology, your cognition, your social skills, and your awareness.

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:

  1. The myth of valencing (imagining that there are positive or negative emotions, or pro-social or anti-social emotions).
  2. The tendency toward expression and repression (having only two options for working with your emotions, both of which can cause trouble).
  3. The lack of nuance (not understanding that emotions arise in a multitude of intensities, and are present in your every waking moment).
  4. 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.

For instance, your fear brings you instincts and intuition about the present moment, while your anxiety helps you prepare intelligently for the future.

Your anger helps you set clear boundaries and manage your relationships skillfully, while your shame helps you manage your behavior and live up to your morals and ethics.

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. 

When you can understand all of your emotions as necessary, you can ask whether they’re appropriate for each given situation. If they are, you can support them, and if not, you can take a look at why that emotion arose, or why it’s so prominent that it steps into situations where another emotion would be more suitable (see How much emotion is too much?).

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.


24 Responses

  1. M
    | Reply

    I really like what you say in this article Karla. It brings to mind the times I expressed frustration, helplessness, grief, anger in therapy and the psychologists/therapists who shamed me. They tried to talk me out of my feelings, especially the “bad” emotions. This triggered a lot of resistance and distrust. Instead of honoring my emotions I had to stuff them down once again. All I really needed is acceptance and validation which would help me trust my inner knowing. I see now how essential it is I listen to the language of my emotions. They hold very important insight and information for me.

    This brings to mind the therapies that conventional practitioners use. What’s your opinion on Dialectical Behavior Therapy?

    I hope you write more about this in the future. You really are on the cutting edge. This has really inspired me to practice getting comfortable will all my emotions and acknowledge the beauty in every one of them. Being an Empath I know how so very important this is.

    • Karla
      | Reply

      Hello M, and thanks for your comment. I’m so sorry that you got shut down in therapy, of all places! I think I’ve been very lucky to find a few therapists who knew how to work with emotions, because emotions aren’t really taught in most therapy programs. That’s so bizarre that the only place we can take our emotions, really, doesn’t understand them. No wonder we have such a hard time emotionally.

      I’m glad you were able to turn toward your emotions on your own, and to listen!

      I’ve been interested in DBT — I know that it was created by a person with a borderline diagnosis, Marsha Linehan, first for herself, and then for others. I like that it arose from within the experience of an actual person, rather than being created from the outside as a kind of control tactic. I’ve seen DBT, however, being used for other diagnoses, and I’m not sure about that. I do know that it’s a very time-consuming and step-by-step program, but I haven’t seen research on its effectiveness in a wide range of conditions.

      • M
        | Reply

        Thanks Karla,
        Are there any specific therapies you think are helpful for people who have been abused and abandoned in childhood?

        Thanks, M

        • Karla
          | Reply

          Hi M — I think that gentle therapies, such as Focusing-Oriented Psychotherapy, Somatic therapy, and Person-centered therapy are good modalities.

          If there’s trauma involved, then Peter Levine’s Somatic Experiencing can be very supportive as well. Both of these linked pages have lists of trained practitioners throughout the world.

          I hope that’s helpful.

    • It is curious that M lamented that the therapist “shamed” him/her.. That leads me to reflect on whether “shame” should be labeled an emotion at all. Shame is an embedded self evaluation, a triggered automatic reflection about myself over against some kind of absorbed or imprinted standard about what/who I am “supposed” to be — not what I am supposed to do [that is guilt’s function), but to BE…It shuts down emotional engagement. It says there is something wrong with me not with what I do or don’t do..I am not saying shame is a negative emotion; I am saying that shame stops emotional engagement in its tracks . I think that puts it in a far different category than anger, or fear, or other emotions. June Tangney, Professor of Psychology at George Mason Univ in Fairfax, VA, has done some amazing research on shame. I think it is valuable to pursue that some more.

      • Karla McLaren
        | Reply

        Hello James,

        My approach to shame is quite different that the standard approach, and I see shame in a larger sense as the leading emotion in internally generated shame, externally applied shame, and the experience of guilt (which I move aside because it’s imprecise).

        This is admittedly unusual, and counter to what many people think, but I find it to be more functional that the idea that shame is not survivable but guilt is preferable.

        We have many specific shame practices in Dynamic Emotional Integration, and they focus on learning where shame messages came from so that we can choose to continue to adhere to them or rescind our agreement and upload more appropriate messaging.

        I wrote about shame in my newest book on anxiety, which will be published next year:

        “There’s a special relationship between your task-focused anxiety and your behavior-focused shame, and your life can become much more peaceful and efficient if you learn how to work well with both of them. Shame is an important part of getting your work done properly, even though its presence can be challenging or painful at times.

        You may notice that I talk about shame and not guilt; that’s intentional: I don’t need you to erase the word guilt from your vocabulary, and I know that my approach is unusual, but it helps me work with shame more effectively.

        Quickly stated, many people believe that guilt is a lighter and more manageable emotion than shame, because guilt allegedly arises when you did something wrong, while shame allegedly arises when you are something wrong. I don’t agree. I see guilt as a fact: you’re either guilty because you did something, or you’re not guilty because you didn’t. Shame is the emotion you feel in response to your guilt, whether it’s for wrongdoing or wrong-being. To my empathic eye, what people call guilt is actually shame about something they did, while what they call shame is shame about something they are.

        Many people separate guilt from shame because they assume that feeling ashamed about what you are is not survivable. I could not disagree more strenuously. Working with shame about what you are (or what you have become) is something people all over the world and all throughout history have done magnificently. This powerful work of shame is the work of transformation and soul-making, profound poetry, epic dramas, deep ecology, and the evolution of human nature itself. Feeling shame about what you are can be excruciating, but it is often a necessary pain.

        Certainly, there are aspects of shame that need to be managed skillfully, such as shaming that is used as a control tactic by authority figures, peers, or the media – but shame itself is a vital and essential emotion.”

        From Embracing Anxiety: Learning to Love This Vital Emotion by Karla McLaren, M.Ed (Sounds True, 2020). All rights reserved.

  2. Michael Stumpf
    | Reply

    This valencing issue makes for so much unworkable communication on many levels, but begins at the simple level of day to day exchanges, where one side wants to keep the conversation strictly positive without room for questions to help clarify. Karla, your bringing this issue to our emotional awareness has helped me to better engage with others that come from a different perspective & understanding. It is tough though at times not to grab for that divisive distinction.

    May we keep dancing!!! Thank again Karla

    • Karla
      | Reply

      Thank you Michael; dance on!

  3. sajan
    | Reply

    what would you say about LUST, Is it a positive emotion or negative in all perspective?

    • Karla
      | Reply

      Hello Sajan — if there are no negative emotions, then none of them can be negative or positive!

      I don’t see lust as an emotion — it’s more of a physiological state related to mating behavior. It’s not included in any of the theories of emotions I’m aware of.

  4. Kiki
    | Reply

    Hi Karla, I really like your site and only just came across your website while researching the state of, or emotions, of apathy for a post I’m writing. It makes sense and is comforting for those of us with many of who struggle with the more difficult emotions. I’d been given the book by David Hawkins “Power vs. Force” regarding the levels of human consciousness and I was wondering if you’ve read it and if so, what you thought of it.

    • Karla
      | Reply

      Hi Kiki, no, I haven’t read it. It seems to come from the metaphysical viewpoint, and that’s not my area of interest any longer.

  5. Ira Woodward
    | Reply

    As you acknowledge, valencing comes from a good place. The desire to ease suffering and manage social interaction comfortably. Yes, of course arbitrary categories like “good,” “bad” and “ugly” are an overly simplistic and frequently self-defeating approach to emotion. Nonetheless… Don’t you think at some point everyone has to make some sort of preference/rigid categorization just for their own sanity?

    It gives you a place in the world, right?

    Personally I don’t play favorites– I know who I like but they never find out from me 😉

  6. Matthew Sherrill
    | Reply

    I adore your lightheartedness!

    • Karla
      | Reply

      Thank you! I have worked to maintain it in this often heavy-hearted world.

  7. Fang
    | Reply

    Hi Karla, I appreciate your view of point about emotions! I like it! I am a bit confusion on the term of “Valence ” which applied in emotions. My understanding is that valence means the molecular formula. Could you please explain more that how the term “valence” to distinguish different emotions? Thanks!

    • Karla McLaren
      | Reply

      Thanks Fang — good question.

      The concept of valence does come from chemistry, where atoms are identified as positive, negative, and neutral.

      But in psychology (and psychiatry and neurology, following psychology), valence is used to identify emotions as positive or negative. But coming from a chemistry and mathematics background, I saw pretty clearly that the valenced approach to emotions was worthless and absurd.

      Every emotion can be “positive” where it belongs, and “negative” where it doesn’t, and that’s very different from atoms, which don’t change their valence (or most don’t).

      In many cases, psychology has what’s called “physics envy,” and it’s pretty standard for psychology to try to open up a can of science to make itself seem more important. Hilarity does not ensue!

  8. Wendy Elford
    | Reply

    Hello Karla

    I agree re positive and negative not being helpful and a specific emotion being contextually a fit or a no fit.

    Might more like this fewer like that be another alternative. Or towards or away from?

    A second question and thinking of the Thayer Matrix which does not use valence and does use stress. I see one axis as arousal as calm or alert which makes sense. Stuart Shanker uses the relationship between stress and energy (low or high) as a vertical axis, however stress can be eustress and distress (not all stress is bad).

    So there is something about energy and appropriateness to the situation which speaks to me about this. And something about expectations and predictions as well.

    Perhaps “fits with the situation” “does not fit with the situation” or ‘comfort’ v discomfort’ or ‘ease’ v ‘not at ease’ which speaks to a bias for action

    • Karla McLaren
      | Reply

      Hello Wendy, and thanks for sharing the work of the matrix.

      It reminds me of the matrix Lisa Feldman Barrett and colleagues use to place emotions on a continuum from low to high arousal and (sadly) positive to negative valence (in the body, basically comfort to discomfort).

      I agree with you that looking at whether emotions are appropriate or fitting to the situation is very important, and can give us essential information (such as why is sadness acting in the place of anger here, or why does this panic behavior arise alongside anxiety when there’s no direct threat that I can identify?).

      In this work, we look at stress as a kind of weasel word because it hides the emotions that are arising to address the situation. Generally, what’s called dis-stress is some combination of anger, anxiety, panic, and some member of the Sadness Family arising to moderate the situation, whether external or internal. Most of us have learned the 2 attribution errors that blame these emotions for arising as if they’re causing the “stress,” when what we’ve found is that they show up to address it.

      What’s called eu-stress will usually bring the emotions of anxiety, possibly jealousy or envy, sadness, and various members of the Happiness Family forward to mark the occasion.

      These multiple emotions are not accounted for in the matrix models, because those models tend to be polar, in that they assume that a person cannot be both high and low valence and high and low activation at the same time. For our purposes, they’re mechanistic in a way that doesn’t allow for fully understanding the forms of ancient genius that each of the emotions bring to us — singly, and in pairs, groups, and clusters.

      Your idea of “energy and appropriateness to the situation” is helpful, and speaks to our concept of nuance, in that we learn to understand emotions at whatever level of activation they arise in. This has helped us understand the very subtle appearance of emotions that many people would not even identify as an emotion, such as groundedness for soft sadness, conscientiousness for soft shame, intuitiveness for soft fear, and so forth!

      I’ve found that the emotions are an absolutely magnificent world unto themselves, and unvalencing them from any polarity is a first step to entering into their astonishing realm!

  9. Brian Palmer
    | Reply

    What do you do when you need therapy, but don’t have a doctor, probably won’t ever have one again, are mired in poverty and racing into your 60’s in a dark world.

    Knowing what your problems are is not the same as being able to access solutions.

    I have 20 years of piles of losses on the main loss I can’t process, let alone carry around anymore, and since Covid I have been traumatized by people over and over, just trying to stay housed and minimally employed.

    I need help, but I can’t ask for help anymore, there is none, or worse, it is not help at all.

    I don’t need to be fixed, I need to be understood so I can put all this loss down.


    • Karla McLaren
      | Reply

      Hello Brian. I’m not sure where you are, but there is free help available through crisis lines, and they can start the process with you. Even if it’s an existential crisis.

      In the US, you can text 988 or call the warmline:

      Also, these 2 grief posts may be helpful. We just finished our yearly grief ritual yesterday, and it’s such an important emotion that most people simply aren’t familiar with.

      Your emotions exist to help you understand the world, and I like to say that they are always true. Listen to them; they contain multitudes.

      Take care and reach out. There is free help available through crisis lines everywhere. You’re not alone.

      Oh, I just found a page that connects people to depression and anxiety help internationally as well:

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