• Dr Tobias Fox

Unpacking Negative Emotions

‘Emotion’ is a word which we are all too familiar with, but what does it actually mean? Feelings? Energy in motion? We never really even scratch the surface. The fact of the matter is, you’ve probably gone through all of your whole school life and entire higher education without receiving a single hour of teaching on emotion. Pretty emotional right? Whilst society’s educational system appears to be underdeveloped in this area, this purpose of this blog post is to draw your attention to a few key principles which will help you understand what negative emotions are, why they exist and how you can process them in a healthy way.

What are emotions?

Emotions can be defined as ‘response sets which prepare and energize us to take certain actions’.

What causes emotions?

Emotions are caused by a chain of cause and effect events which make up a ‘primary emotional system’. The system works a little something like this:

  1. You experience a sensory-perception e.g. you are walking home from the shops and you see a car hurtling towards you.

  2. You experience a drive e.g. you then have an intuitive desire to want to avoid the car.

  3. You experience an emotion e.g. you then feel fear which forces you to move out of the way of the car more quickly.

So, emotions are a response to our perceptions and drives, and orient us in the world to take certain actions which would be beneficial for our survival and reproduction. It is important to note that understanding the reasoning behind why we experience a certain emotion is not always as clear as in this example. Our emotions are primitive response sets with a long evolutionary history and the environment in which these emotions were experienced is likely to be very different to the environment of modern-day society today.

As an example, to illustrate this, if you have ever wondered why sometimes when someone cuts you off in traffic, you’re quickly overcome by rage, there is a possibility that this goes back to our ancestors. Of course, our ancestors didn’t have cars, but territory was very important to them and so was being able to move. Being held back by an opponent was a common and upsetting experience that could have had deadly consequences. This might explain how someone cutting you off in traffic triggers an ancient emotional pattern causing an emotional outburst.

How do we process emotions?

Now that you understand what gives rise to emotions, we now have a base from which can now begin to understand how we process negative emotions and why this is important in relation to our mental health.

The tripartite model is a conceptual map for understanding how we process emotions. There are 3 main components to the model

  1. The experiential self is where your core emotions arise from (as explained by the ‘primary emotional system’).

  2. The private self is the rationale and pragmatic part of you which thinks about and judges your feelings in relation to how it thinks you should feel.

  3. The public self is the part of you that thinks and judges your feelings in relation to how others are likely to perceive them.

Going back to our example - the experiential self-experiences fear and so just wants to avoid the car. The private self may judge this fear afterwards saying something like ‘‘you really over-reacted there, you had loads of time to get out of the way’’. The public self says might also say ‘‘all of your friends just saw you do that and now they think you’re a big wuss’’.

As we can see, if we experience negative feelings but then judge them in relation to ourselves or others, we can begin to see how there is this 3-way tension set up in our minds with our emotions being pulled in different directions. It is these tensions resulting from judgement that can result in us ignoring certain negative emotions or even blocking and stuffing them down.

Before we go any further I just want to quickly point out that judging our feelings is not always a bad thing; there is a space for that. As we’ve already talked about, our emotions are primitive response sets and so sometimes our emotional impulses aren’t always appropriate to the situation at hand.

So, if we are being increasingly critical and saying to ourselves ‘‘stop feeling this way, what’s wrong with you?’’ this not only inhibits those ‘primary’ core negative feelings but is also likely to generate more ‘secondary’ core negative feelings in and of themselves. The next thing you know, you end up with this self-perpetuating negative cycle where you experience a negative emotion, you judge yourself for it, and a result experience more negative emotion. There is no real limit to how much this can take effect and you can get caught up in layers of primary, secondary, and tertiary reactions which simply result in a downward spiral. This is an example of maldaptive processing of negative emotion and this can occur even if levels of anxiety or depression are below clinical thresholds for an official diagnosis.

As a side note, if the negative emotions are not being processed properly and are being stuffed down, then there is an increasing likelihood that the emotions will be triggered and released in an uncontrolled fashion as with an anxiety attack or a depressive crash. Like a leak in the ceiling which originally starts off as a small drip, over time the leak gets worse and worse until eventually the water builds up and the entire ceiling collapses.

How can we process negative emotions more healthily?

Self-judgement is the driving force of the negative self-perpetuating cycle of negative emotion and so the key question is how can we eliminate self-judgement? First of all, by understanding that all of your emotions, even negative ones, have a purpose, even if its not immediately visible to you, that will help you to begin to turn down the evaluative part of your mind which judges whether its right or wrong for you to feel that way.

You can also eliminate self-judgement by changing the way in which you relate to primary negative emotions and you can shift your perspective from one where you view negative emotions as helping you, rather than hurting you. For more on this topic please read the blog ‘taking perspective’.

#emotionalintelligence #resilience

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