Growing up, I was a pretty happy kid. I was excited about school, I had really good friends, and I had a lot of fun. I had a zest for life that I may never be able to replicate. I was very carefree and whether I consciously expressed it or not, I had a lot of gratitude for the life that I had the privilege of living.
But my fairly blissful existence also meant that when a negative emotion did come my way, I had no idea how to deal with it. And sometimes, when I felt those negative things, like anger or jealousy or frustration or regret, I thought there was something wrong with me, something that needed to be solved. Those emotions weren’t light and cheerful like the other ones I had, and, stupidly, I didn’t want them to have a place in my existence.
Over time, though, I’ve realized how truly wrong my narrative was. Of course, as I continued to live my life and move into adulthood, the negative emotions became much more common. I rarely feel carefree now, and I can count on one hand the amount of times that I’ve actually been able to experience something mindfully without being distracted by other stressors and emotions circling within me. I realize that I am responsible for developing resilience and making it a priority to be present in my daily life, but I’ve also realized that I can’t just reject negative emotions when they develop.
Because here’s the thing: there’s no such thing as “good” and “bad” emotions. Emotions exist as ways of communicating with our own bodies and minds. Just because an emotion may make you feel positively or negatively doesn’t automatically mean it’s good or bad. Every emotion has a purpose, no matter the manifestation. When you’re sad, your emotions might be telling you, hey, this situation isn’t making me feel heard or included. When you’re jealous, your emotions might be telling you, there’s something about this situation that makes me insecure, and that’s why I’m feeling this way. And even for happy feelings, like pride, your emotions still are trying to tell you something. Maybe they’re saying, Wow, this really makes me feel accomplished inside because I worked hard. And instead of feeling like we need to kick out all of the bad emotions and reign in the good, we need to stop for a second and think.
There is always something valuable to gain from reflecting on an emotional signal. So if we tune out the voice behind the emotion, we’re neglecting to address the message that’s being communicated to us.
This “emotional signal” is for our benefit as well as other people’s. It’s important to dig deep into our own emotions to reflect on their meaning, but it can also be incredibly beneficial to do the same for others. There is a great deal of shame, judgment, and disappointment that comes with some emotional responses. When we see someone angrily lashing out, or screaming in frustration, or crying uncontrollably, or having a tantrum, our first response is usually, Whoa, they’re upset. And sometimes, whether we want to admit it or not, we judge. We think, Why can’t they control themselves? or They should calm down! or What’s their problem? Because the expression of those stereotypically “bad” emotions, especially in public, can be quite frowned upon. But if we did the work and tried to dissect that feeling, with an attempt to understand what’s happening and why, we could confront it so much better.
That’s not to say that people should just go around having tantrums in public, or that yelling at someone is okay. Because it’s not. There’s a level of decorum that people need to have when they’re connecting with others, and it’s necessary to have that because it’s how we show respect. But we also need to separate the emotion from its manifestation. There is such thing as a bad way to manifest or deal with something, but the emotion behind it is real — and if we ignore that, we are not getting to the root of the problem.
Emotions are basically our body’s way of telling us: CODE RED! There’s a problem going on! And I’m going to be super duper obvious about it so that you get the memo! And how we choose to deal with that memo is our decision — sometimes we do it correctly and sometimes we make mistakes. But if we stopped and reflected, rather than acting impulsively and doing the first destructive or unproductive thing that comes to mind, we’d be much healthier and much more equipped to cope.
During the self-reflection process, when we do finally make an attempt to understand the messages that our emotions are trying to convey, it will be very helpful in addressing a resolution. For instance, if you’re in a relationship with someone and you feel super jealous over something they did or someone they’re hanging out with, maybe your first inclination is to lash out at them and accuse them of cheating. But before you do that, think it through. Ask yourself what kind of message that jealousy is telling you. Are you feeling insecure? Is your partner putting effort into addressing your needs and feelings? Do you feel like the relationship is one-sided? Is the person that they’re hanging out with a threat to you because something happened, or because you are afraid something will happen? Ask yourself why you’re afraid. What about you or your partner’s actions have caused you to harbor that fear? And once you find the answer to that, you can brainstorm meaningful solutions. Perhaps your “answer” is that you feel jealous because you’re insecure, and your partner doesn’t make an effort to show their appreciation for you. After uncovering that answer, maybe your prompt to find a solution is, How can I communicate with my partner that this bothers me? How can I address with them that I feel under-appreciated?
If we continue to ignore bad emotions, the problem will only get deeper. But if we confront them, there is a level of self-understanding that is gained, as well as an assertiveness for finding a valuable resolution to the conflict. There’s no benefit in proclaiming the “good” or “bad” emotions if we never make an effort to explore them. And the more we give those not-so-fun feelings the connotation of being “bad,” the more we ignore what’s at the core and deny ourselves peace and balance.
And the same can go for “good” emotions, too. When something makes us feel happy, we can ask ourselves why. Is it because of the company we’re with? Is it because we’re doing something that we enjoy? Is it because we have worked hard and feel the experience being a reward for our effort? Is it because we are practicing a healthy habit and reaping the benefits of it? What about that experience is bringing us the warmer emotions rather than the colder ones? And when you find your answer for that, even though there is no “solution” because the emotion is already welcome, you can still analyze how to make that feeling more a part of your daily life. Maybe you’re happy because you are with a friend who is a really good communicator and you’re outdoors in the sun and doing something you’re really passionate about. So during the self-reflection process, in order to find ways to welcome that emotion more often, ask yourself: What can I do to spend more time with people who are good communicators? How can I spend more time outdoors? How can I structure my schedule so that I have time for more things I’m passionate about?
Understandably, self-reflection can be a long and drawn-out process, and amidst work and studies and families and social lives, we don’t all have time to comprehensively assess the roots of our emotions and map out solutions every single time. But when we do have the time, we should. And when we don’t, we should still be trying to understand the messages our bodies and minds are telling us. We shouldn’t just discount them. And even if there’s no opportunity to understand, maybe we shelve it away and reflect on the conflict later on.
I’m still working on this as an individual. Some days, I feel like I will never make meaningful progress with this habit. But I also still try. I realized how toxic my previous narrative was — that some emotions were inherently “bad” and I should feel ashamed to have them or compelled to disguise them. But that isn’t true.
Narrative is everything. Attitude is everything. We need to start being kind to ourselves and giving ourselves permission to feel things without building barriers to them.
Because there’s no such thing as “good” or “bad” emotions. In reality, it’s just a wonderful opportunity for us to learn from what’s inside.