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The Myth of Negative Emotions

The Myth of Negative Emotions is of course related to The Myth of Positive Emotions

Cover of The Language of Emotions book and audio learning programIn 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. This unified and ecological 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 four decades of study, research, and practice that emotions are central to everything we do, everything we think, everything we learn, and everything we are.

Emotions evolved over millions of years to help us become socially successful primates, and every single one of them is vital to our functioning. 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.

A book about suppressing emotions

Many people sent me information about psychiatrist Peter Breggin’s book Guilt, Shame, and Anxiety, which purports to teach people how to silence what he calls the “negative legacy emotions” of guilt, shame, and anxiety.

Emotions evolved over millions of years to help us become socially successful primates, and every single one of them is vital to our functioning. 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.

I think that people contacted me because they wanted me to rise up and challenge him (I see guilt, shame, and anxiety as vital and irreplaceable emotions), but let’s look at how he arrived at his conclusions: Breggin sees these emotions as uniquely negative, so of course he’s going to want to eradicate them. He’s not the first person to try to get rid of allegedly negative emotions, and he won’t be the last.

It’s also important to note that from his position as a psychiatrist, Breggin sees people in truly endangering situations with these emotions, so of course he’s going to want to get rid of them. It’s a humanitarian gesture, really.

However, treating emotions as negative or positive always leads to what my computer programmer friends call the GIGO problem (Garbage In, Garbage Out). If you input an incorrect 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 and 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 things that everyone knows about emotions — that are completely wrong

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.

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.

If you valence emotions, you’ll also lose awareness of and access to a great number of the skills your emotions bring to you. For instance, healthy fear brings you instincts and intuition about the present moment, while healthy anxiety helps you prepare intelligently for the future. Healthy anger helps you set clear boundaries and manage your relationships skillfully, while healthy 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!

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.

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.

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 fear – 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 fear to get yourself to safety. In a situation of immediate physical danger where fear 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 evolutionarily 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 actually going on – and you’ll learn how to experience emotions without demonizing them or glorifying them.

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 help yourself or others 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 ecological and empathic approach to emotions, you learn to welcome all of your emotions (and the emotions of others) as valid and legitimate aspects of human social skills, empathy, cognition, and intelligence, because all emotions are necessary.

Unvalencing emotions is a crucial first step to becoming emotionally competent and empathically skilled. When you can approach emotions ecologically and welcome their gifts, you’ll develop extensive emotional and social skills.

All emotions are necessary, because every single one of them brings you gifts and skills that you can’t get anywhere else. There is no such thing as a negative emotion.

The valencing myth traps people — including very intelligent and accomplished people — in emotional confusion. Valencing — which leads directly to emotional confusion and unnecessary suffering — is a perfect example of a 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.

18 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.

    • James Lopresti, PhD, LMHC
      | Reply

      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.

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