Understanding Your Negative Emotions

February 6, 2019 Heidi Green, Psy.D.

Negative emotions serve an important purpose. Understanding negative emotions can help you heal from painful experiences. Learn more at HealthyPlace.

Negative emotions are a part of life, but why are they important? Nobody wants to feel sad, lonely, angry, anxious, worried, or fearful. Often, people don't understand the purpose of emotions they perceive as bad, and they want to get back to feeling good. The problem with labeling our emotions as "good" or "bad" is that we may assume our negative emotions do not serve a purpose, are purely unhelpful, and should be avoided at all costs. The truth is, our negative emotions have positive life lessons for us if we know how to attune to them properly. 

Reframe Your Beliefs About Negative Emotions

All emotions provide us with useful information. Instead of labeling them as good or bad, I like to think of negative emotions as survival emotions and positive emotions as enrichment emotions. Survival emotions like anger, fear, and sadness help us evaluate safety in our environment. The biological basis for these emotions is to cue us to danger and keep us alive. Enrichment emotions like joy, love, and happiness make our lives worth living. They tell us when we are safe, reinforce positive behavior, and help us connect to others. 

Emotional pain cues the same learning response in the brain as physical pain. For example, I once cut my hand badly while chopping vegetables and ever since I've been much more cautious when using a knife. My physical pain taught me a lesson about how to keep myself safe. My emotional pain teaches me too. I was once in a relationship in which I ignored red flags because my boyfriend had some great qualities. Ultimately, he cheated on me and broke my heart. The pain from that heartbreak taught me the importance of listening to my intuition and not ignoring warning signs in my relationships.

Use Your Survival Emotions for Self-Growth

How can you attune to and learn from your survival emotions without getting stuck in negative emotional states? It's helpful to acknowledge your negative emotions with self-statements like, "This is painful. I'm so [insert painful emotion here]. It's natural and appropriate for me to feel this way."

After you honor your emotional experience and permit yourself to feel it fully from a place of self-compassion, you can ask yourself, "What important lesson does this painful emotion have to teach me? What can I learn from this experience to take better care of myself, keep myself safe, or have healthier relationships in the future?" 

Be mindful about taking in a healthy survival message. If the message I received from my heartbreak was, "I'll never trust anyone with my heart again," that would not be a helpful message.

Instead, the message I learned was to trust my intuition. I told myself, "Next time I think someone is dishonest with me, I won't ignore it. I will trust my gut."

This healthy message helped me make better relationship choices going forward.

Finally, try to have gratitude for the negative emotion. It serves a purpose, so you don't want to dismiss it or jump out of it prematurely. Choose to see the pain as a helper in your overall wellbeing. The experience of gratitude and reframing can help you move out of your painful emotion when it's appropriate and protect you from getting stuck in it.

APA Reference
Green, H. (2019, February 6). Understanding Your Negative Emotions , HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2024, July 21 from

Author: Heidi Green, Psy.D.

Heidi Green is a clinical psychologist and self-love aficionado. She lives her blissful life in Arizona where she enjoys hiking, kayaking, and snuggling her rescue pups. Find Heidi on Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook, Instagram and her blog.

Please note: Dr. Green shares her personal opinions and experiences and nothing written by her should be considered professional or personal services or advice.

Jim H.
April, 7 2019 at 12:44 pm

Thanks, there are no Words..

April, 7 2019 at 11:03 pm

I'm so glad my article helped you, Jim. Our painful emotions are just as important as our pleasant emotions. I hope my words help you shift your perspective on distressing emotions so you can use them to take good care of yourself.

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