The first several days of 2016 haven’t been very productive or enjoyable for me. Coincidentally, I’ve gotten a similar impression from family and friends as well. It’s led me to think a little more about frustration and disappointment, which we usually consider to be ‘negative’ emotions.

I think this idea of negative emotions - suggesting that some emotional states are somehow inferior or less valuable than others - is cause for some concern. It points to a lack of emotional intelligence. According to Psychology Today, emotional intelligence is “the ability to identify and manage your own emotions and the emotions of others.” Most of us can identify emotions reasonably well. Manage them, not so much.

Think about how you manage physical sensations. Suppose you’re walking to work or class when you notice that your foot hurts. You’d probably pause to think about what you did recently; maybe you were carrying something heavy and tripped the day before. It’s no question that the sensible thing to do would be to give your foot a break and avoid tripping with heavy things in the future. We recognize that the physical discomfort has both a cause and a remedy, and we act on those realizations.

We don’t seem to approach our emotions the same way. When we get frustrated, perhaps over a stagnant project, we might complain to a friend or allow that emotion to overwhelm us and get in the way of whatever else we’re doing at the time. We can usually identify the source of the frustration, but acting on it appropriately is something we tend to have more difficulty doing.

Why is this the case? It’s probably because we either don’t get the opportunity to address our concerns or aren’t confident addressing them effectively. In a culture that’s obsessed with happiness and positivity, (to the point that we apparently have a “happiness industry”), these uncomfortable emotions are usually dismissed or criticized and swept under the rug in hopes that they’ll dissipate with time. It’s easy to fall into this trap, whether you’re addressing someone else’s emotions or even your own.

Realistically, this deliberate ignorance might be the best approach in the short term. It shouldn’t be the default response though. Just like the discomfort of a physical injury, emotional discomfort has something to offer us. As Carlin Flora puts it, “negative states cue us into what we value and what we need to change.” So next time you find yourself frustrated, disappointed, upset, etc., ask yourself:

  1. Why might I feel this way?
  2. How can I appropriately address this emotion now?
  3. How might I be able to avoid it in the future?

It seems like a ridiculously simple set of questions… because it is. But collectively, we simply haven’t had enough experience asking them and answering them. We need to start doing that. Comfort can’t exist without discomfort, so if happiness and satisfaction is our end goal, we have to see the value in ‘negative’ emotions and work with them effectively.