The Purpose of Negative Emotions

This seems to be a recurring theme for me, so I thought I’d put together a few things I have noticed in regards to integrating negative emotions.

If expressing negative emotions as a child seemed to generate negative consequences or negative reactions in the child’s caretakers, the child may choose to suppress his full expression and instead adopt the conclusion that only positive regard for things is acceptable. The child believes that feeling negative emotions themselves is bad, so he learns to defend himself from them by suppression or denial. What the child doesn’t know is that his ability to say no to things is part of his self-expression, his boundaries, his active principle in the world.

Since being loved is a survival need, the child feels that he cannot enforce his boundaries, because he has to be permitted to, so the child learns other means of getting his needs met: evasion, manipulation, isolation. His mechanism of exploration becomes one of adaptation instead of active engagement with his environment, so instead of developing his selfhood and taking action towards getting his needs met upon growing up, he learns to develop reactively to his environment.

The inability to say no transfers into attitudes towards giving and receiving too. If the child felt that he was not allowed to say no in order to claim his selfhood, the word yes begins to feel like self-sacrifice, while the word no feels like guilt and rebellion.

Later in life, the adult may find himself paralyzed or confused about his life. His actions may seem to lead nowhere and life may take an air of senselessness or meaninglessness. Apathy, laziness, depression, helplessness or hopelessness can arise as a sign of unfelt/unexpressed negative feelings, the thought behind these experiences being “I can’t” which is an indication of a paralyzed willpower.

Unfelt/unexpressed anger/fear/pain in particular causes the flow of energy within one’s self to stagnate. If you look into anger, you will see that it is a sign that one’s willpower, voice, self-expression or rights have been obstructed. Therefore, anger in itself is not bad, it is a side effect of something else, a side effect of denied self-expression. Its message is “I have the right to be here. Exactly as I am.”

Anger has its purpose, it is a call for taking back your power. If it is felt and expressed in a healthy way, it is a very positive force. It becomes destructive only when it is displaced or projected upon the external world by blaming, complaining, victimizing, punishing. In its healthy manifestation (felt, understood and expressed) it reveals itself as the force behind healthy boundaries, willpower, integrity, determination, purpose, healthy self-assertion, self-expression. It reveals itself as the same force behind your agency, your active principle in the world. In its negative manifestation (unfelt, projected upon the external world and acted upon) it turns into resentment, apathy, laziness, victimization, rebellion, resistance, misuse of power and control.

“There is an intimate connection between the problem of laziness and feelings that have not been fully experienced. Do not look at laziness as an attitude to be given up at will, if only the person would finally come around to being reasonable and constructive. This is not a moralistic issue at all. Laziness is a manifestation of apathy, stagnation and paralysis, a result of stagnant energy in the soul substance. Stagnant soul substance is the result of feelings that have not been fully experienced or expressed, and therefore their significance and true origin have not been totally understood. When feelings are not thus experienced, understood and expressed, they accumulate and stop the flow of the life force.”

– Eva Pierrakos

Anger seems to be widely regarded as a negative thing, but that is solely if you judge by appearences, if you think of it as a cause, instead of as the effect of something else. But just like in medicine, the symptoms are not the problem. The cause lies in misperception coupled with suppressed emotions. We often suppress negative emotions precisely because we believe them to be bad or believe ourselves to be bad if we experience them. And this is where shoulds come into play.

It is true, some people seem to have the good qualities of patience, levity, joy, but that is not because they suppress their negative emotions, it is because they have understood its message, understood their early experiences and come to a higher understanding.

An example that comes to mind to exemplify this is that when we think of inner peace, we may imagine a Buddhist monk, unshakable and unflinching in the face of the ups and downs of life. Being used to judge solely by results, we do not pause to wonder what sort of life experiences bring forth the lessons necessary to cause such a shift in perspective so that no matter what comes your way you can maintain your peace. Instead, we observe the attitude, the posture, the philosophy, the words , the mannerisms and we try to adopt them ourselves.

We may even understand it at an intellectual level, but what is not immediately apparent are the roots these ideas have grown in the minds of those who experienced what those ideals were or were not, the associations with painful and memorable moments, the trials and errors and the deep understanding they provide. We only see the surface and often it is the surface we try to imitate.

“When feelings are not experienced in their full intensity, the inner life flow must become stagnant. People will find themselves inexplicably paralyzed. Their actions will become ineffectual; life will seem to obstruct all their goals and desires. They find closed doors to realizing their talents, their needs, their selves. So-called laziness may be one manifestation of this paralysis. A lack of creativity or a feeling of general despair may be another. In this latter instance, people may often use a current event or difficulty to explain away their inner state. The truth is that a sense of futility and confusion about life and your role in it must envelop you when you resist living through the feelings you harbor; you go on harboring them because you delude yourself that avoiding the feelings will hurt you less than exposing them. There are many other manifestations. The inability to feel pleasure or to fully experience life is one of the most widespread general effects. However, there is no other way to become fully alive than to keep experiencing your real feelings.”

– Eva Pierrakos

The paradox is that experiencing negative emotions is a positive experience because it is based in reality. Any attempt to run from negative emotions is an expression of that negative emotion. Take envy for instance. Have you ever tried not to be envious of someone? It is my experience that doing so makes everything I say feel uncomfortable, forced or dishonest. Whereas if I am honest, not only do I feel at ease because I am no longer opposing myself, but my self esteem grows because I am showing myself that I can accept myself as I am.

When negativity is acknowledged, accepted, felt and expressed, three things happen:

1. You lose fear of other people because you know that it is your unwillingness to give or to love that is causing the conflict and not the apparent unfairness of the demands of others.

2. The other person loses guilt about being bad for being the persecutor since you express your own part in the conflict.

3. Your boundaries become stronger because negativity is a defense from pain. When your boundaries are stronger, your sense of safety increases and so does your willingness to love and give. You can’t have one without the other.

Therefore, the first step in losing fear of others is in finding, acknowledging, accepting and expressing the negativity you find in yourself. In seeking in this direction, it is important to make the following distinctions:

1. Acknowledging is different than accepting. Acknowledging is admitting to one’s self that the negativity is present within you. Accepting means having no resistance to it being there, not fighting against it or judging it and especially not trying to suppress it.

2. Expressing negativity isn’t acting upon it. It is being truthful to others about our own part in a conflict, being honest about how one really feels.

Knowledge in Action

If as a child you were valued for your knowledge and intelligence at the detriment of other virtues, you may have decided that these traits were the most important ones to develop and pursue. Courage, kindness, patience may not have been given much attention in your environment which means they did not get a chance to grow in your field of awareness. Due to their apparent lack of applicability in building the life that you want, they were considered secondary or inessential. But while intelligence is a key virtue that helps unlock other virtues, it is lived virtues that are infused with life.

While the quest for knowledge may transition into the quest for wisdom and self-understanding in adulthood, the personality can still grow lopsided, because even though it pursues the wisdom of other virtues, it does not live or embody those virtues. Therefore, the proof of true understanding is action, changed behavior, not as a superficial superimposition, but as embodied knowledge. Knowledge in action. Movement. Otherwise you may find yourself, in the words of Sri Aurobindo, poeticizing on the peaks.

The pursuit of wisdom and knowledge at the detriment of action can also be a sign of a traumatized willpower. In childhood the personality may have been consistently met with negative feedback whenever displaying autonomous action which may have made it doubt its impulse for action.

The original need for self-expression and action is still there, but if the wrong conclusion is not made conscious, the personality may channel the urges of the soul for experience and growth into something else, into a substitute such as accumulating knowledge. Without the spontaneity of self-trust, the personality withdraws into fantasy or into the pursuit of knowledge in order to compensate for an unlived life.

Accustomed to distrust its natural instinct and inclination for action and choice, the call of the soul becomes more and more urgent, which causes more and more frustration, since the original need cannot be adequately fulfilled by compensatory mechanisms, especially if they are unconscious. If the need is made conscious, the longing is still there, but the urgency disappears.

That’s why I think it is important to orient towards living virtues, practicing them, as one may confuse the real thing for the description, like the anecdotal finger pointing to the moon. Otherwise virtues can become lofty ideals of an ethereal quality instead of lived realities.

This change does not happen instantaneously as habits take a long time to form, but it helps to know what kind of person you want to become, what virtues you wish to live and approach them daily through small actions.

While it is true that the quest for knowledge and wisdom does lead to other virtues, it helps to test yourself, to create a link between the intellectual knowledge you possess and your experience. Intellectual knowledge being what “is claimed to be” or “should be”, experience being “what currently is”.

In that way, you can see where you are in relation to where you want to be, not as a judgement, but as feedback of where you are with your progress.