It’s easy to get sucked into the trap of avoiding negative emotions. Shame obviously isn’t as inviting as reveling in happiness and pride—if the latter is that first sunny spring day after a long, cold, and dark winter, then shame is the bone-chillingly cold winter day when the sun sets at 4:00 PM. Negative emotions cause people to turn inwards and isolate themselves from others. Feelings such as sadness, anger, disgust, shame, fear, etc. often get labeled as “bad” feelings—and yet, it’s important to remind ourselves that they are entirely normal to experience.
The feelings themselves are not bad or negative. But they’re labeled as such because they’re “‘unpleasant or unhappy emotion[s] which [are] evoked in individuals to express a negative effect towards an event or person” (Pam 2013). It’s not the feeling itself that’s “negative,” but the way it makes one respond to other people and situations.
Acceptance of negative feelings and allowing oneself the space to experience said feelings are actually good for our mental health. Studies have shown that those people who more readily accept their negative emotions, as opposed to suppressing them, end up experiencing less negative emotions overall (Ford 2018). The practice of acceptance allows people to experience the natural and typically brief course of emotions, rather than making them worse.
Avoidance and judgment open the door for meta-emotional reactions—in other words, having emotions (often negative ones) about having specific emotions. For example, someone shames themselves for feeling sad and guilty over something (an emotional double whammy, if you will). While it seems paradoxical, repeatedly practicing the acceptance of negative emotions allows one to “go through the motions” faster and helps reduce the intensity of feelings over time (Ford 2018). Metaphorically speaking, it’s like standing on a beach where the waves become increasingly smaller and easier to pass through, eventually feeling like a gentle current that merely skims the surface where water meets the sand. If the first time you allow yourself to feel everything is a torrential downpour, eventually with practice it can become a sun shower.
Making space and giving oneself the freedom to feel can include putting on a sad movie, or a song that’s a known tearjerker, and simply letting it out until it feels like there’s nothing left. One can take careful observation and really sit with the sensation, observing how it feels to experience the first tear rolling down their cheek. Do the tears bring embarrassment? Catharsis? Joy? Making space can be the still, mindful practice of letting anger build within oneself, taking practice to really understand what the anger is trying to communicate. Is it trying to be protective? Is it covering up another feeling? Is the anger connected to an older memory or experience? None of these practices need to be solitary ones, either. One can make space and share these feelings with the people that feel safest to them. In fact, sharing “negative emotions” with the people that make one feel safe, seen, heard, and loved can be a way to shake the feeling of shame.
Shame thrives on the negative stories we tell ourselves and has the ability to alienate and ostracize. Sometimes, we need a friend or family member to remind us that the stories we tell ourselves aren’t always true. While it might go against intuition and run counter to what a lot of us believed while growing up, negative emotions are normal, necessary, and nothing to be afraid of or ashamed of.
Ford, B. Q., Lam, P., John, O. P., & Mauss, I. B. (2018). The psychological health benefits of accepting negative emotions and thoughts: Laboratory, diary, and longitudinal evidence. Journal of personality and social psychology, 115(6), 1075–1092. https://doi.org/10.1037/pspp0000157
Pam, N., (2013, April 7). Negative emotion. Psychology dictionary. https://psychologydictionary.org/negative-emotion/