What is the function of negative emotions? Why do we have them?
The seven deadly sins not withstanding negative emotions originate from our earliest beginnings and are built for our biological survival from immediate danger.
The seven deadly sins – put forth by the theology of the Roman Catholic Church are immersed in judgment and morality, but worth a look:
- Pride (pride is a good emotion when not excessively indulged in creating hubris) Hubris is excessive pride where the “prideful” person is often divorced from reality and has an overly confident stance
- Greed – a desire to possess more than one needs and seems to be addictive (greed for money – excessive wealth, power, status or the acquisition of things)
- Lust – excessive desire for an experience or thing, mostly lust for sex, but could also be lust for power, another addictive emotion.
- Envy – a desire to have what another has which can destroy the person experiencing this emotion due to possessiveness / greed (also addictive)
- Gluttony – over indulgence in food and drink (also addictive)
- Wrath – or anger / rage and when accompanied with violence is a volatile emotion (also can be addictive)
- Sloth – laziness or apathy related to depressive emotions.
The Seven Deadly Sins or Negative Emotions particularly greed, lust, envy, gluttony, hubris and wrath appear to arise out of addictive emotional / somatic elements that are substitutes for the lack of love and the bond of love needed for children. Sloth may arise from depressive emotions.
It would appear that hubris, greed, excessive lust, wrath and envy are extremely addictive emotions that arise from maladaptive behaviors within society and whose basis derives from avoiding fears.
Part of the purpose emotions involves how humans become attached to life on earth. This process may be likened to an attachment, an identification and / or addiction to the experiences of life. More on the function of emotions in an evolutionary process in Part Two.
I think its safe to say that we as humans have experienced one or more the seven deadly negative emotions at some point in our lives.
If someone tells you your having negative emotions then they are putting judgments on you and shaming you for emotions that are common to us all. But wait – what they are really doing is judging you for expressing so-called “negative” emotions in an ineffective manner that is often called “acting-out”. Negative emotions expressed negatively are quite common because we have little to no emotional education and may be furthering the cause of make negative emotions increasingly negative.
Many people of “new age” view negative emotions as unwanted and bad. These emotions must be expunged or eradicated and replaced by positive feelings through affirmations, meditation etc. They often believe that the ego is bad and is associated with negative emotions and that the divine self or egoless self promotes only positive emotions. When the “negative emotions” are cut loose then a belief develops that the ego is functioning on an increasingly positive vector. This “cutting loose” of negative emotions may be an illusion based on a belief that the power of the mind (over matter) – over negative emotions when the emotion may have gone underground through denial, repression or suppression. This “new age” line of reasoning is based on many faulty assumptions that will be explored in part two.
Negative emotions may produce a fight or flight response. When no immediate danger is present then the acting-out expression of negative emotions often repel others. Negative emotions are not always wanted and sometimes abhorred. Many a time I have heard clients and acquaintances say: “I want to get rid of this feeling.” This kind of thinking is based both on a desire to focus only on positive emotions and avoid negative ones and a basic flaw in our emotional education albeit informal. A misunderstanding of the functions of all emotions, positive, negative, mixed feelings and neutral feelings creates a stigma around negative emotions. The result is a misunderstanding of the function of negative emotions and a disservice to our growth and evolution.
There is a unspoken bias in our civilization that emotional states are divided into two groups so feelings can be reduced to the simplest terms for understanding. However this creates a trap so that negative emotions are seldom addressed effectively.
Some values of Negative and Positive Emotions
Emotions, especially negative emotions are usually expressed through stories especially amongst those of with no formal emotional education. Storytelling usually serves the function of describing the emotion without naming it and it justifies the storyteller in feeling a certain way adding morality such as I am right for feeling this way and it implies that the other person is “wrong” for feeling another way in the context of the story. In stories emotions are not left to stand on their own. Morality, judgments, rationalizations and justifications are attached to emotional states in an attempt to make one person better than another, the other being “the cause” of the emotional state – often negative.
Venting is a common storytelling morality play that serves in keeping the venter stuck in feeling and recycling the negative emotion as part of a cognitive belief.
Often it is through venting with / to another (or with our self) that many negative emotions become apparent and may be released however this is not so often the case. Venting doesn’t solve the source of the negative emotion it only lets it out to air. The underlying dysfunction from the past remains unsolved and venting begins again. This can take a variety of forms. Complaining is one kind of rift that is a kind of venting filled with storytelling ripe with frustrations, self-reproach and self-pity. I had a friend that would seek me out to vent about her relationship and ask for advice. She would paint herself as a victim: feel guilty, self-pitying and frustrated. She would ask for advice and I offered advice. Rinse-repeat. She never followed my advice. For a while I just listened. She repeatedly asked me what she should do. Finally I told her – I didn’t know and that I couldn’t help her and that she could seek therapy.
Repeated venting is often a rational justification for negative feelings through storytelling. Often the emotion is not expressed directly. The story has to do what the person has done and what was done to the person and a justification of righteousness. Repeated venting becomes an addiction. The justification for being right is separate from feelings (cognitive dissonance) and keeps the venter from taking action thus keeping people in the place of venting. This is especially true with regard to anger and rage. The emotion inflates the self of self and is linked to thinking of being right. When an injustice becomes evident many of like-mind become angry and the venting begins. Becoming angry / rageful over a perceived injustice may often be warranted and the anger may be an acting out that does not achieve justice. Venting is the result. Many of the group doesn’t take action or if they do there is no immediate result so more venting is warranted. When venting recycles enough it becomes addictive and no actionable results are produced.
Anger and/or rage may be the one negative emotion that may be wanted because it fuels righteousness and a sense of power over others and can be very addictive and abusive. Historically anger comes from the fight principle in defending the self from immediate danger. In our daily social politics those that display anger and / or rage do so from “acting-out” behaviors that may be adult tantrums that are refined or unrefined. Seldom I have seen anyone arousing anger in them selves as an effective emotion. Those that are acting-out their angers are impossible to avoid unless we run from them. Intervening with someone who is acting-out anger or rage is potentially dangerous due to the possibility of violence.
My father enjoyed baiting me into arguments so he could dominate me with his premises and make me bad, wrong and stupid. During the Vietnam war I constantly argued with him. I asked my lover during that time to assist me with the debate.
I said: “I feel all war, all killing is wrong.”
He said: “We have to defend our allies against the Commies.”
She said: “A feeling is a feeling. Its not right or wrong, it just is.”
From that point on I was able to diffuse all of my Father’s attacks (unless he had been drinking) by identifying his premise and either disagreeing with it or ask him if he meant to hurt my feelings with his argument.
This curtailed his yelling at me that I was bad wrong or stupid and we engaged in playful joking or conversations about the weather.
Many of us have been trained to believe that others are responsible for our emotional state. “You make me so mad,” and other similar statements allow us to remain children without power. Certainly our emotions may be triggered to arise from the unpleasant manifestations of others.
Don Miguel Ruiz’s The Four Agreements speaks to others emotions and judgments. The second agreement:
Don’t Take Anything Personally
Nothing others do is because of you. What others say and do is a projection of their own reality, their own dream. When you are immune to the opinions and actions of others, you won’t be the victim of needless suffering.
An honest approach to emotional expression may look something like this:
“I feel angry right now and I realize this is in no way your fault. I was triggered when you did such and such. If you’d like to assist me in processing my feeling that’s okay. Otherwise I’ll just sit with the feeling myself.”
Obviously this is ideal. When we come from environments where acting-out negative emotions and behaviors are modeled its difficult to make a transition to taking responsibility for or emotions.
In Part Two the function and necessity of negative emotions are discussed as a part of the way towards mastery.