Have you heard or labeled sadness, anger, or even fear as “negative” emotions? Our society teaches us the only emotions we can allow space for are “positive” emotions, i.e., happiness and excitement.
In reality, this teaches us to suppress uncomfortable emotions (e.g., sadness) in favor of comfortable emotions (e.g., happiness). If anyone displays anything besides “positive” emotions, they can be judged for doing so… just for feeling emotions as humans do. There continues to be a stigma against showing the whole spectrum of human emotions, especially in public places, including work and even around certain family members. This is unfortunate since all emotions inform the human experience in different ways.
When we do not deal with emotions, not only can it explode on others, but it can be somatized. Somatizing is when emotions manifest in physical ways, such as tension in certain body parts, stomachaches, nausea, and more. There are some theories suggesting some autoimmune disorders may partially be a result of suppressed or unexpressed emotions and/or trauma in the body.
Significance of “Negative” Emotions
Sadness can be triggered by several factors, such as the ending of relationships, grief/loss, and/or unexpected outcomes like a loss promotion. According to emotion’s researcher, Dr. Paul Ekman (n.d.), sadness has a universal function of signaling to others that we need help, comforting, or time to process what happened. This can also remind us of what is important to us as well as trigger compassion.
Other “negative” emotions, such as anger and fear, were evolved to help us too. Anger arises when we are prevented from pursuing something and/or unfairly treated (Paul Ekman Group, n.d.). This can help us with establishing appropriate and healthy boundaries, so we do not get taken advantage of. As for fear, it has evolved over time to keep humans safe from real/perceived harm, which can be physical/emotional/psychological in nature (Paul Ekman Group, n.d.). Fear has helped the human species survive and is part of the fight/flight/freeze/fawn response to danger.
In Susan Cain’s book, Bittersweet, she discusses a study by Dr. Christina Ting Fong, showing folks with the ability to hold “positive” and “negative” emotions being better at making connections between unrelated concepts as well as intuitive leaps (2022). When we can hold both, especially in times of transition, we are more likely to experience more meaning in life according to Dr. David Yaden (Cain, 2022). Dr. Steven Hayes, founder of Acceptance Commitment Therapy, believed “‘to open your heart to pain is to open your heart up to joy,’” so being able to hold space for both emotions allows us to experience life more fully (Cain, 2022).
How to Start Feeling and/or Sitting with Sadness
We are focusing more on sadness since it still has a bad reputation these days. These tips can also be used with other emotions.
Using creative expressive outlets can help us accept and validate our feelings as well as embrace common humanity and feel less isolated from others
Listening to sad music
Cain created a playlist of bittersweet music. If you are interested, click here
Viewing artwork or reading poetry can help with accessing emotions
If you are not a fan of those outlets, TV shows/movies work as well
Writing out your emotions
Having an outlet for your thoughts can help create insight to learn/grow as a person and allow you to not ruminate on the same thoughts on repeat
Seeking support with trusted person(s)
Supporting a friend through a difficult time
It might feel too much to feel your own feelings but helping someone can sometimes buffer it
This is not used to distract from your own emotions
If you are new to your emotions, you can get easily overwhelmed
It may be helpful to intersperse periods of feeling emotions with something different you enjoy like an unrelated hobby
The point is to slowly integrate feeling emotions into your life until you are used to sitting with your emotions to learn from them
The point is not to sit and dwell in the emotions forever
If you want to read more about general emotions, feel free to click here
If you are interested in reading more about holding both emotions, I highly recommend reading Susan Cain’s book, Bittersweet. You can access her TED talk on the topic by clicking here. It can help give you a different perspective on emotions, including the feeling of bittersweetness. Life is hard… life is also beautiful at times. The capacity to take in and hold contrasting emotions makes us who we are, human.
If you are interested in further discovering and sitting with your emotions, feel free to contact us here for our mental health services.
Stay tuned. The next topic is "Skills to Start Living Your Best Life."
Cain, S. (2022). Bittersweet. Crown.
Paul Ekman Group. (n.d.). Universal emotions: Sadness. https://www.paulekman.com/universal-emotions/what-is-sadness/
Paul Ekman Group. (n.d.). Universal emotions: Anger. https://www.paulekman.com/universal-emotions/what-is-anger/
Paul Ekman Group. (n.d.). Universal emotions: Fear. https://www.paulekman.com/universal-emotions/what-is-fear/
Written by Elena Duong, Psy.D.
Edited by Susanna La, Ph.D.