Just like the depiction of ‘good’ and ‘evil’ characters in classic fairytales, we tend to have overly simplistic views about emotions: happiness is “the Princess” and fear, anger and sadness are the “Evil Stepsisters”. Is it fair or even accurate for certain emotions to get such a bad rap?
The fact is, all of our emotions, even the uncomfortable and distressing ones, serve a useful function, otherwise evolution would have stamped them out already! All of our emotions have three important purposes: to communicate to you, to communicate to others, and to motivate you to act.
Emotions are not ‘good’ or ‘bad’, ‘positive’ or ‘negative’; they are functional or dysfunctional. Fear, for instance, is functional when it signals to you there is a threat in the environment and motivates you to defend yourself. However, if you experience fear frequently, at intense levels for prolonged periods of time and in response to non-threatening situations, then it is dysfunctional because the response is both inaccurate and unhelpful.
So instead of trying to get rid of distress, first determine whether your emotions are serving a useful function and when they are not. And guess what, even happiness can lead to dysfunctional responses. Check out the following examples:
1. FEAR & ANXIETY
You are on a bushwalk and see a snake. You feel afraid and you back away slowly until you are out of danger.
You feel anxious about an exam you have tomorrow so you study more to make sure you get a good mark.
Driving makes you anxious so you avoid it as much as possible, always asking others to drive you or taking Valium to calm you down.
You have panic attacks that seem to come out of the blue. You stay home to prevent them from happening again.
You feel angry about how refugees are treated and this motivates you to contribute to a charity to assist them.
You heard your colleague made inappropriate remarks about you so you spoke to her directly to clear things up.
You get so angry that you want to punch a wall or attack others.
You scream at a grocery clerk for taking too long and threaten to get him fired.
You feel guilty about forgetting your best friend’s birthday so you apologise and take her out for a special lunch.
You feel bad because you can judge others harshly sometimes so you work at being more tolerant and open-minded.
You think you are a bad person and you can’t forgive yourself.You believe others dislike you, and will not forgive your mistakes.
You are unable to move from feeling guilt to solving the problem.
You didn't get a promotion and you feel disappointed.
You feel empathy for others going through hard times.
You lose a loved one and seek support from friends and family while you grieve.
You feel so depressed you can’t get out of bed for days.
You isolate yourself because you don’t want to burden others with your problems.
You use drugs or alcohol to cope.
5. JOY & HAPPINESS
You get a promotion and you go out and celebrate with your friends.
You are enjoying spending time in nature.
You are feeling grateful.
You feel happy when something bad happens to someone else.
You behave in a boastful or arrogant manner.
You ‘celebrate’ by putting yourself in risky situations (binge drinking, reckless driving, unsafe sex)