We all know that negative emotions are a part of life. Last week I posted about the importance of noticing negative emotions, naming them, and giving them space to be (Negative Emotions – a Path to Happiness?).
Today I want to talk about the difference between two types of negative emotions: necessary (e.g. “good sad/mad/hurt/grief”) and gratuitous (e.g. “bad sad/mad/hurt/grief”). Understanding which type of negativity we feel determines tools and processes to help us get back to a neutral or positive emotional state.
Necessary Negativity (Some call this essential, authentic or appropriate negativity or simply pain)
Some negativity is necessary to live a happy life. It grounds us in reality; facing the truth allows us to move forward with our lives. For example, it is natural to mourn the loss of someone dear to you, to feel guilt when you do something you know is wrong, to be angry when you see an injustice done or disappointed when something doesn’t go your way.
These inescapable discomforts can be seen as the ‘first darts’ of human existence; they cannot be avoided. If you are going to live and love in this world, you are going to feel these negative emotions. The research is clear that if we suppress those negative feelings, they inevitably grow stronger and surface in other parts of our lives.
Learning how to acknowledge and experience these negative emotions in a healthy way has been well-studied and we’ll be talking about them in detail in a few weeks.
Gratuitous Negativity (or suffering)
As if these “first darts” aren’t enough, our active little minds often multiply the negative emotions we feel by adding layer upon layer of gratuitous negativity. These ‘second darts’ are the ones we throw ourselves.
For example, on top of an authentic disappointment that we didn’t get a promotion at work (first dart), we can add a cascade of second darts…
“I’m not good enough.”
“I knew I should have done x instead of y.”
“Why don’t I ever get anything I want?”
“He stole that promotion from me.”
“Oh God, this is the first step to me getting fired and then we’ll have to sell the house and move in with the in-laws. Everyone will know what a failure I am.”
Sound familiar? Our cute little brains make up all these stories about why something happened that over-generalizes an experience (“This always happens!” “I never get to…”) or catastrophisizes it (“And then I’ll be homeless and alone…”) or assumes victim-hood (“She did this to me!”)
Here’s this week’s challenge: Next time you notice feeling bad (sad, angry, annoyed, frustrated, put upon, impotent, outraged, whatever), try to distinguish the necessary negativity (first darts from the outside world) from the gratuitous negativity of our reactions (second darts).
Listen to what you are telling yourself and ask: “What part of what I’m feeling is based on an outside, empirical fact that legitimately sucks? And what part of what I’m feeling is based on unreasonable expectations or irrational stories?” Many people find that just adding this awareness of necessary vs. gratuitous can significantly reduce the amount of negativity they experience.
In the next post, we’ll be discussing some of the best tools for reducing gratuitous negativity. Stay tuned!
The Happiness Coach
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