Joy, anger, sadness, disgust, fear – despite the uncanny similarities in theme, this isn’t about the 2015 Pixar movie, Inside Out. This is all about how to empower your clients in counselling and/or social work to understand their emotional reactions and will positively help you to help them. Clinical Psychologist, Leanne Hall breaks down the healthy way to approach emotions and the myth of good vs. bad emotions.
Let’s face it. Negative emotions don’t feel good, and as such, it’s human nature to try and avoid them, or at the very least work out ways to make them go away.
But here’s the thing. Emotional avoidance is arguably one of the main causes of psychological problems today. Why? Because avoiding emotions doesn’t make them “go away” at all!
So why do we do it then? Well, if like me, you were raised in the 80’s and 90’s by parents/teachers who said things like “you shouldn’t feel like that” or “stop feeling angry” or even better “you should be happy, not sad!”, then welcome to the world of emotional avoidance!
We were taught to judge certain emotions as “bad”, for no other reason than because our parents wanted the very best for us - joy and happiness! But the problem is, avoiding emotions doesn’t make them go away. In fact, it makes them stick around for longer and/or makes them feel so much worse.
Range of human emotions
So what exactly is the human range of emotional experiences? Generally, it’s thought that humans experience six types of emotions.
If you examine these feelings more closely you will no doubt find yourself, automatically categorising each as either “bad” or “good”. While this is completely normal, it’s important to be aware of how these types of labels influence your reaction to these human emotions.
For example, if you feel anger towards someone, it can be a common response to try and “ignore” the feeling, or maybe react impulsively or even feel guilty. These are all reactions to a completely normal emotion based on judging the emotion as “bad”.
Alternatively, someone who remains quite neutral and accepting of the emotion as “normal” might use the emotion to inform them of how to react without negative judgement. This means that “anger” is diffused much more quickly, and goes away!
Emotional avoidance to acceptance
Emotions give us information. Nothing more. They are like an alert system directing our attention to something specific. When we tune into them and accept them as normal, we create the opportunity to appraise them and learn from and manage emotions.
The funny thing is that once we do accept all emotions as equal, the unpleasant ones lose their destructive power. Not only that, but it’s empowering to consider that it puts us in the driver’s seat where we can focus on making informed decisions about our behaviour, as opposed to engaging in impulsive or destructive behaviours based on how we respond and react to certain emotions.
So rather than labelling emotions as “good” or “bad”, it may be more helpful to refer to “pleasant” and “unpleasant” emotions. Remember that “unpleasant” emotions offer vital pieces of information that should not be ignored.
They should be appraised and evaluated before responding in much the same way as pleasant emotions, because like all healthy emotions – even the unpleasant ones are transient!
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