Why suppressing so-called negative emotions is counterproductive
Feelings of sadness, fear, or anger are neither abnormal nor a punishment for doing life wrong. As a matter of fact, you can learn to use them to your benefit, to actually build your confidence and live a better life.
From the time we are lollipop-licking, pigtail-wearing little girls, we are taught by well-meaning adults to suck it up and not cry when another kid calls us a name, we have to stop playing and go to bed, or we simply can’t have what we want . . . be it a peanut-butter cup, a Barbie doll, or a puppy. Then we grow up in a society that holds the collective belief that it is a man’s world, and to be anything close to successful, we need to be, well, more manlike. To be powerful, you must be tough and strong, not emotional and weak. Pile on top of that the positive-psychology rage that tells you to practice gratitude—create a dream board, avoid any “negative” thoughts, and focus on the positive (full disclosure—I’m part of the pack). We deem ourselves inept, flawed, and washed-up hot messes when we feel the “negative” emotions of anger, fear, or sadness. Yes, that’s twice I put quotes around the word negative, and yes, there is a reason. More on that in a moment.
How about a dose of the truth? Sometimes life genuinely sucks. I didn’t like getting called names when I was little. It hurt. When I was a kid, there were things I wanted, and there are still things I want today that I do not have. I didn’t like it then, and I don’t like it now.
The fact is, life has a way of handing us raw deals at times. People can be jerks, and life isn’t fair. As a Solo Mom, I imagine you are nodding your head right now. You are part of a segment of the population that endures a decent amount of pressure, responsibility, and challenges, and your needs and desires often take the last seat on the bus.
I realize these words you are reading are all coming off the fingertips of a happiness expert. I know it doesn’t seem very uplifting, but stay with me here. You are about to see how the truth will set you free. Let’s bust a few myths, shall we?
There is no such thing as “negative” emotions. I admit some emotions don’t feel good in the moment we experience them, but the fact that we have them does not mean there is something wrong with or weak about us. Oftentimes, we unknowingly toss fertilizer on them, allowing them to grow stronger and live longer by denying or avoiding them. What we resist persists. For starters, we all experience all emotions. It’s a universal part of the human experience. It isn’t some design flaw in you that you feel sad or want to poke someone’s eye out with a coffee stirrer sometimes. Emotions are normal. It’s our negative perception of them and the role they play in our lives that is the problem. We think our job is to banish the negative thoughts and feelings, and if we don’t, we have failed as people. Well, guess what? By those standards, we are all failures.
Emotions such as fear, anger, and sadness are normal, and I’ll go one step further. What if they are tools? What if they have the ability to offer us wisdom, guide us, make us more whole, complete, and confident? What if our tendency as women to be more emotional is actually an advantage and not a disadvantage at all?
For the record, I advocate strongly for making happiness a high priority in life and even made the case in another ESME article that investing in your happiness is an investment in your child’s happiness. I do believe in the power of positivity and a practice of looking for the positive in a situation. Yes, look for the good, and also allow yourself to feel what you genuinely feel and don’t judge yourself negatively for it. You will live a much more balanced existence when you do so.
My friend, my beautiful, brilliant, powerful woman doing your best with what you’ve got, it’s about time you end the war within. You’re up against enough on the outside; how about you ease up on the battle on the inside?
In this Psychology Today article, Dr. Barton Goldsmith tells us expressing our pain is a good way to make it stop and that by allowing ourselves to cry, we let out what hurts and make more room for positive thoughts and feelings.
The next time you feel like crying, afraid you are screwing up your life (or your kid’s life) or feel you just aren’t good enough, rather than denying the truth of how you feel, shoving the emotions down and trying to keep your chin up, try something new for a change. Try responding as follows:
1. Don’t run away. Lean in. Don’t be afraid of what you are feeling. Instead, allow space for it. Now, there may be moments when you need to temporarily hold on to the emotions, such as in a board meeting or presentation. In those instances, press “hold” and revisit later. The irony is, as you learn to experience, process, and learn from your emotions and stop resisting them, they are less likely to boil up at inappropriate times.
2. Imagine your emotion has a message for you. It isn’t trying to hurt you and isn’t a sign of weakness; rather, it’s a messenger of wisdom. In this Huffington Post article, Jenny Florence, creator of the A-Z of Emotional Health online library, tells us true wisdom is dependent on our capacity to listen to and understand our emotional experience. So don’t hate on a negative feeling. It’s part of you. Engage with it. Dialogue with it. You can do this in your head, on paper, or even out loud provided, of course, you are in a judgment-free zone (read: alone). Try questions such as, What are you trying to tell me? What wisdom do you have for me? How are you trying to help me?
3. Trust what you hear. Trust yourself. There is more wisdom wrapped up in your cells than all the knowledge that surrounds you. As LiYana Silver says in her brilliant book Feminine Genius (Sounds True, 2017), which I highly recommend, “In order not to spontaneously combust from the heat of your emotions, you must develop the unwavering belief that each is wise, not flawed.”
4. Allow the emotion to move through you and leave you with its wisdom. The less you fight against it, the quicker it will move on and the more you will gain from it. The beautiful thing is, each time you practice this, you grow more confident. It is as if you are finally gathering the scattered pieces of you and putting yourself back together. Then, feel free to focus on the positive.
Keryl Pesce is an author, inspirational speaker, and happiness expert whose brand and advice have been featured in Redbook, the New York Times, and the Huffington Post, and on Glamour.com and Bloomberg.com. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram at @KerylPesce.
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