3 Myths About "Negative" Emotions & How They Can Benefit Your Health
Avoiding or burying your emotions can mess with your health. See, many experts believe emotions become stored in your body, and unless you do the necessary work to release them, they can accumulate and ultimately sabotage your well-being. And each emotion has a specific purpose—even those that make us feel uncomfortable. In fact, according to Wall Street Journal bestselling author Mollie West Duffy (and co-author of the recently published Big Feelings), a few negative emotions actually have profound benefits for your health, assuming you honor them the right way.
Below, Duffy explains what we're still getting wrong about some of these difficult emotions and how to use them to your advantage. You'll quickly discover that these "negative" feelings aren't actually negative at all:
You likely hear it all the time: Comparison is the thief of joy. And, yes, social comparison can be quite destructive for mental health, particularly among younger individuals, but we are hardwired to compare ourselves to others. In fact, a 2003 study found1 that when researchers gave a group of monkeys slices of cucumber, the monkeys were content—until they saw researchers give a different group of monkeys grapes (a major upgrade). "The monkeys who still got a cucumber were no longer happy," says Duffy, showing how social comparison can affect your mood—even without the existence of social media.
"You unfortunately are not going to be free of comparison just by getting off social media," Duffy says. "We get text messages, we run into people at the grocery store, we see celebrities…it's all around us." Unless you're completely off the grid and isolated (which has its own health implications, we should add), chances are you're going to run into comparison in some form or fashion.
But that's not necessarily always a bad thing! "Most of the time, we only engage in upward comparison, which is against people who we perceive to be doing better than us," says Duffy. However, you can engage in downward comparison, too, which can help you cultivate a sense of gratitude. For example, let's say you're trying to become a better runner. If you compare yourself to someone who has never done a long run before, it can make you feel better. That's not to say you should go up to that person and tell them they're a bad runner—it's just a way to tweak your social comparisons in your head so that they don't mess with your mood.
"The most common myth is that you should suppress your anger," says Duffy. Early on in our lives, we receive societal cues that anger is scary and that you should never show it—but this suppression only makes it more difficult to deal with those feelings when anger does arise.
"A lot of us don't have healthy relationships with anger," notes Duffy, when it can really be a helpful tool for you to use. "Anger is actually just a sign that your body and mind are telling you to do something about something you care about that has been violated." It's mobilizing, and it's an important step for dealing with inner trauma and grief.
Anger can even be a form of compassion, says Duffy—that's why people tend to cry when they get mad. "It's like, I care a lot about this thing that's been violated. So it comes out in terms of tears," Duffy explains. Of course, you don't want to marinate in your anger for a long time or respond with violence of any kind, but it's an important tool to identify what you care about so you can then make tweaks or take action.
Allow Duffy to declare, "We cannot live a #NoRegrets life. Regret is an emotion we can learn a lot from if we allow ourselves to."
Sure, regret can feel uncomfortable, like a pit in your stomach, but forgetting those regrets and beating yourself up for having them is not the answer. Rather, regrets can teach you about what choices you should make the next time you're met with a similar scenario. "Most of the time you made the best decision that you could at the moment," says Duffy. "Move into a place of, OK, what could I do differently in the future?"
So rather than wallowing in your regrets, it's important to normalize them so you can move forward in a healthy way. Here's a three-step routine to do just that, if you need some help organizing your thoughts.
It's important to honor your emotions, including the ones you may view as "negative." Many of us are taught from a very young age to bury these feelings, but that can actually mess with your mental and physical health over time. You can learn quite a lot from those "negative" emotions—and according to Duffy, the most uncomfortable feelings are often the best teachers.
Jason Wachob is the Founder and Co-CEO of mindbodygreen and the author of Wellth. He has been featured in the New York Times, Entrepreneur, Fast Company, and Vogue, and has a B.A. in history from Columbia University, where he played varsity basketball for four years.