Our negative emotions are there to tell us something. Acknowledge them
here are five main categories of emotions: happy, sad, angry, scared, and confused. We feel our feelings because Hashem created us this way. We’re supposed to have emotions. Of the five categories of emotions, only one is pleasant-feeling — the “happy” category.
The other four groups of feelings are negative emotions; they’re unpleasant to experience and experiencing them may lead us astray cognitively, behaviorally, physically, and spiritually. For example, when we find ourselves immersed in feelings of despair and hopelessness for a significant period of time, we may start to believe that there’s no point in trying anymore (a cognitive distortion). We may withdraw from productive activity or social connection (a behavioral tendency). We may neglect our health in numerous ways (leading to physical decline). We may stop begging Hashem to help us (falling into spiritual numbness). Experiencing long periods of negativity is actually attributed to the yetzer hara.
The Positive Purpose of Negative Emotions
However, negative emotions aren’t all bad! While a lengthy stint of negativity can be very destructive, a measured amount of the same emotion can actually be highly productive. There’s a reason why Hashem gave us these emotional tendencies in the first place.
Negative emotions are signals. Like a compass, they point us in the right direction, prompting an action tendency designed to move us forward in life.
Sadness urges us to replace loss and fill emptiness. Anger prompts us to strengthen boundaries and develop inner strength. Fear prods us to take safety precautions and remain appropriately vigilant. Confusion demands that we seek balance and reestablish ourselves on solid ground.
Small bursts of feelings occur throughout every day of our lives, prodding us like a stick to take the next step along our path. Like the right amount of food, emotions support our well-being. But gluttony in any realm makes us sick.
“I really don’t like my sister-in-law. She invites herself and her family to our place for meals almost weekly, but never offers to bring anything. And when she’s here, she just sits at the table while I serve and clean around her.
“The problem is that I feel awful about the way I feel about her. I tell myself all the time to just be more accepting and to realize that we all have different strengths, but when she’s actually in front of me doing her self-centered thing, it all falls apart and I feel engulfed by rage.”
This woman realizes that remaining in a state of resentment, judgment, and bitterness is not what Hashem wants of her. She’s wrong, however, in how she wants to go about upgrading her feelings. We can’t just guilt ourselves out of them. Shaming and blaming ourselves for feeling bad only adds more negativity to our inner world. This secondary emotion is eased by realizing that Hashem wants us to pay attention to the signal within a negative emotion and follow its prompt.
We’re not supposed to ruminate on the feeling, essentially playing the signal over and over again without paying attention to and addressing its message. Replaying that signal endlessly is what causes us to fall into the long-term negativity that causes so much harm. Instead, we need to welcome and validate the feeling, acknowledging how it makes sense, and then try to decipher its directive. What action is needed to alleviate the feeling? What is the feeling asking us to do?
“I eventually realized that it made sense I was displeased with my sister-in-law’s behavior — nobody would like it! Validating my own feeling gave me permission to listen to its message. My upset was urging me to take action, to speak up. I decided to be straight (in a nice way of course) and ask her to please bring something each time she comes and please keep me company in the kitchen and work along with me.
“I was surprised at how quickly and graciously she responded. Even though she was a person who couldn’t think of ‘the right thing to do’ herself, it turns out that she’s really reasonable when asked to help out. I’m so glad I listened to my feelings!”
Don’t just feel bad. Don’t feel bad about feeling bad. Ask the feeling what you need to do and do it. And get back to feeling good!
(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 681)
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