5. POSITIVE & NEGATIVE EMOTIONS. Labeling emotions as good or bad – the death of self regulation.


Did you ever experience guilt for feeling angry, jealous, resentful or greedy? Were you ever told not to be sad or angry? That it is not good for you to be that way? “Get over it and be happy or in control.”
I get this all the time.

If you google positive & negative emotions, you will find thousands of definitions and labels where emotions will fall into one of these categories. Decades of research and theories that support this approach. I’ve been there as well. Fortunately, I have learned better.  

Many of us learn to label emotions as positive or negative. Ultimately, we end up internalizing it as good or bad. If we fail to decode and understand its purpose and meaning, we might be trapped to believe that it is good to feel positive emotions and bad to feel negative ones. Specially with kids, if feeling negative is bad and the kid can’t stop it or control it, then he/she must be bad. And this is one of the dangers of labeling emotions like this. You will have a really hard time to self regulate and learn self control. The good news is that there are other ways of learning emotions – that do not include good or bad. 

Instead of positive or negative, try easy or difficult to manage emotions. And understand that all emotions, with no exception, have a purpose, a meaning and might signal a need. Often times, all of this is unclear to us at first.

I hope the following TIPS will help you exercise self regulation and ultimately, self control based on an alternative framing for emotions: 

1. Understand emotions. They are critical for our survival. We need to learn how to accept and decode emotions in order to self regulate. Emotion is a complex reaction pattern that involves experiential, behavioral and physiological elements (American Psychological Association). This is why our experiences with emotions are so different from another person. Each of us will perceive a different significance in matters and situations. And our emotions will reflect it. Masking or not accepting what we are feeling will not allow us to understand this experience. 

2. Don’t make your emotions be you. Instead of “I am sad” reframe it to “I feel sad” or ” I recognize that I am feeling sad”.

3. Think of the emotion as a messenger that needs to tell you something. Open your heart and hear what he/she has to say. Don’t kill the messenger! Start a conversation to understand the why. If you exercise these inner conversations with your emotions, eventually they will go away at some point, but the learning will remain.

4. Learn the purpose and meaning of the emotion. I will leave you with a very simplistic framing for some emotions that I hope will help you out. Sadness is focused in the past. It signals a need to heal in order for you to move on. Fear is focused in the future. The good news is that it is based in a perceived threat about something that did not happen yet. Both sadness and fear are protective. We would not be able to survive without fear. On the other hand, sadness compels other people to protect, help and support us. It is exactly what we need when we are experiencing sadness. Happiness. It is about the here and now. It is about finding joy in the present moment and appreciate what you have. It cannot be postponed. Many people set up goals for happiness like – I will be happy when I finish my degree, or when I get that job, or when I have enough money to buy a certain car or house. When you plan for happiness like this, often times when you reach the goal, instead of happy, you feel empty. Because you haven’t learned how to experience happiness. As I have mentioned, it is not something you postpone, it is something you experience in the here and now. Gratitude, compassion and forgiveness are amazing pathways for happiness. And these are all things that you exercise today.

5. If you need something massive to appreciate it, you are missing life. This is not about giving up being ambitious or aiming for something in the future. There is nothing wrong about dreaming and pursuing for something you haven’t reached yet. Just leave happiness out of the equation.

6. We can hold both joy and pain simultaneously. We are all capable of experiencing difficult and easy to manage emotions at the same time. Just like a rainbow on a stormy day, with the sun out there. Even if we do not see it.

7. I really like positive psychology. It had a massive influence on my training and practice as a clinical psychologist. But I also believe we should be aware of toxic positivity – the over generalization of a happy, optimistic state that results in the denial, minimization and invalidation of the authentic human experience. In other words, when we use positivity to cover up or silence the human experience, it becomes toxic. By disallowing the existence of certain feelings, we fall into a state of denial and repressed emotions. Therefore, it becomes really difficult to self regulate.

Practice decoding your emotions and accept that they are all important. And please remember to exercise feeling happy in the here and now!

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