Why all Our Emotions Are Key to Our Wellbeing
How are You Feeling Today?
From the time we are born, our parents try to steer us away from negative feelings. “Don’t be sad,” they would say, “what’s there to be sad about?” Or, when we’ve grown a little, “You’re a grown-up now, don’t be afraid,” as though fear is for children only.
Our culture is to blame for linking negative emotions to perhaps negative upbringing or, more commonly, to a failing in us. And yet, from the day we are born, nature has us crying when we are hungry or cold, and joyful when we are fed or comforted. These are not strengths or character flaws, but mirror emotions of one another—a natural way for us to shed our misgivings or share in our happiness.
Anger, fear of the unknown, and the general anxiety that at times accompanies us—those are necessary parts of the human experience. They come and go and, more importantly, they make us all the more appreciative of the happier times we inevitably also experience.
The Pressure to Be Happy
Like the rest of us, you’ve probably experienced the pressure to be happy. On Facebook, everyone wants you to believe they’re happy—something that can make you unhappy. This type of argument goes on to suggest that if you’re unhappy, something must be wrong with you.
And it all starts well before Facebook. “How are you?” That is how people greet each other, the smile on their faces so wide that one is afraid to reveal their true sentiments. We hesitate to say, “Well, I feel a little blue today,” or, “I’ve had better days.” Those would be akin to admitting that we’re less than fully in our right mind—less than patriotic, or caring.
The truth is simpler than all that: you can’t be happy if you’re not on occasion also sad. In fact, happy, sad, anxious, guilt-ridden, moody, pensive—they’re all natural, “healthy” emotions, part of everyday life.
Emotions that Fill Our Days
You’ve heard the expression “fight or flight”, but did you appreciate that it is nature’s way of potentially saving us from a dreadful outcome? Say we’re driving down a road when, suddenly, a woman pushing a pram jumps right in front of us. What then happens is a dazzling physical display of flight or flight: at the speed of light, our nervous system floods our bloodstream with adrenaline that instantly elevates all our systems to a condition of full alert. This enables us to call up unusual mind and body reactions that can save the day for us.
Conversely, think of those sensations we experience when we hear a song that takes us back to the most delightful period of our life, or to the dream infatuation we had in high school. We get gripped by a pleasant type of nostalgia that fills us with warmth and tenderness. Our body reacts by—once again—elevating our consciousness to the level of our daydream and the height of our emotions.
In the first instance, when we were gripped with fear, we were driven to life-saving action. In the second instance, when tender memories ruled the moment, we were summoned to extraordinary thoughts of understanding, love, and creativity.
Emotions as Body Language
Imagine now if we were to move around zombie-like amidst a group of friends—devoid of any emotions. We’d probably scare people off and end up as hermits. In reality though, it’s only natural that we’d want to display our feelings. When we’re happy, we want to share our joy with friends, and we do that mostly with body language: a twinkling of the eyes, a broad smile, and a slew of other facial expressions. By sharing in our feelings of joy, excitement, sadness, or anxiety, not only do we divulge information that our counterparts can act upon, but our friends can also understand us and perhaps empathize or commiserate with us, making us feel better.
The Critical Nature of Negative Emotions
We’ve all in all likelihood heard the expression: “She carries her emotions on her sleeve.” In fact, we all have emotions, the difference being that some people are outgoing and have no problem exhibiting their feelings, while others may be more guarded and less inclined to share in their emotions. This latter group may on occasion think in terms of being regretful for having negative emotions—as though they were invading our “happy” space. Little do they realize that feeling guilt, jealousy, anger, or shame is as vital to our overall mental health as the more upbeat emotions.
In fact, like our culturally-driven biases, many ancient concepts define wellbeing as a state in which positive feelings reign. This nevertheless negates the chaos and messiness that everyday life often serves us with.
Imagine a world in which we always cover up for our sadness, guilt, or fear. In such a world, we would neither be able to experience life’s joys, nor the many positive thought patterns that keep us driving forward.
Meaningful self-appraisal works in the opposite direction, leading us towards a better understanding of our strengths and weaknesses, and better self-compassion, all necessary if we are ever going to be able to surmount the obstacles that we are dealt with and thrive. Thus “working through our issues”, and “taking the good with the bad” are, if anything, energizing concerns.