We instinctively resist our darker emotions, but feeling bad may be essential for ultimately feeling better.
New research by psychologists at the University of California, Berkeley, were looking to explore the link between emotional acceptance and psychological health.
In three separate experiments, 1300 adults had their response to negative feelings tested.
In the first test, participants were asked how strongly they agreed with statements including “I tell myself I shouldn’t be feeling the way that I’m feeling”. In the second test, after a public speaking task, participants rated their feelings about the task while in the third test, participants wrote about their most recent challenging experience.
Those who avoided their negative feelings or judged themselves harshly for feeling bad were more likely to report mood disorders and distress six months later, while in all three experiments, those who accepted and acknowledged the full-range of feelings fared better and experienced greater wellbeing.
“Overall, these results suggest that individuals who accept rather than judge their mental experiences may attain better psychological health, in part because acceptance helps them experience less negative emotion in response to stressors,” concluded the authors of the study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.
By allowing the spectrum of emotions and not judging ourselves for feeling them, we may allow them to pass, suggested an associate professor of psychology at UC Berkeley, Iris Mauss, the lead author.
“Maybe if you have an accepting attitude towards negative emotions, you’re not giving them as much attention,” Mauss said. “And perhaps, if you’re constantly judging your emotions, the negativity can pile up.”
As the science of positive psychology evolves, understanding of wellbeing has graduated beyond the binaries of positive and negative, happy or unhappy. Wellbeing is much more nuanced and we can achieve it without feeling happy or positive all the time – in fact, we’re more likely to achieve it if we don’t.
Dr Timothy Sharp, director of the Happiness Institute, says that feeling upbeat all the time is not the key to wellbeing nor happiness.
“Although positive psychology research has found that positive emotions (such as happiness) are undoubtedly important and beneficial, the real goal is thriving and flourishing and living a ‘good’ life,” Sharp explains.
“As part of this, it’s clear from the research that what have historically been referred to as the ‘negative emotions’ actually serve a useful purpose in many situations. So accepting, and even using them constructively is part of living our best lives.”
Sharp adds that by denying dark emotions or berating ourselves for feeling bad, we miss “important feedback” about our circumstances.
“Further, believing we ‘shouldn’t’ feel distress will only lead to frustration and disappointment because the reality is that distress is a normal part of life.”
Embracing full-range feelings
- Accept that it’s “normal” and “appropriate”, as humans, to experience the FULL range of emotions, Sharp advises.
- Would it really be healthy or OK to never feel sad? Or anxious? Or stressed?
- Look for ways these unpleasant emotions might be useful.
- And look for lessons we can learn from these situations – what, if anything, should we be looking to change in our lives?
- Finally, ask yourself something like, “If I’m not happy where I am, what can I do about it?”