Many people struggle with negative, even destructive feelings – about themselves, about others; about emotions aroused in their careers or relationships. Trying to stifle negative emotions — or feeling bad about having them to begin with — is pretty common. It causes much distress and struggle; and often brings people into psychotherapy.
The irony, here, is that resisting your “bad” feelings actually intensifies them. Psychological health and well-being grows from the opposite: Embracing them. Now, some new research provides empirical evidence that. In essence, you can feel better by allowing yourself to feel bad.
That’s what meditative practices help you learn to do, and that accounts for much of the rise in popularity of meditation, yoga, and other mind-body practices. Consider this: When you try to deny or stifle any “parts” of yourself – whether undesirable emotions, desires or fears, you become fragmented. But you need a sense of integration; of wholeness inside. That’s what grows your well-being and your capacity to handle the ups and downs, the successes and failures; part of that relentless change and impermanence that is life.
One of the new studies, conducted with 1300 adults in the course of three experiments, underscored that in its findings. For example, it found that that people who try to resist negative emotions are more likely to experience psychiatric symptoms later, compared with those who accept such emotions. The latter group – those who showed greater acceptance of their negative feelings and experiences – also showed higher levels of well-being and mental health.
The study was conducted by researchers at the University of California at Berkeley and the University of Toronto. According to lead author Iris Mauss, “We found that people who habitually accept their negative emotions experience fewer negative emotions, which adds up to better psychological health.” But those who tried to avoid negative emotions in response to bad experiences were more likely to experience symptoms like anxiety and depression, 6 months later. The study was published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.
Such findings underscore that meditative practices enhance your “muscle” for tolerating the ebb and flow of emotions and preoccupations; rather than clinging or attaching oneself to them, which pulls you in their direction As that capacity builds, you become more able to stay focused and centered internally, in the face of the rise and fall of emotional turmoil, including needs, fears, frustrations, and longings – all of which are part of the fluctuations of life. Meditative practices and yoga diminish the tendencies toward anxiety and depression – as evidenced by studies of brain activity as well as conscious experience among meditators.
I find it a bit amusing that researchers who find empirical evidence for the benefit of accepting and letting go of negative emotions often sound as though they’ve invented the wheel. It may be news to them, but such knowledge has been around for several millennia in other cultures. Nevertheless, it’s good to find studies that corroborate that, especially for people who are otherwise skeptical or unaware of the importance of practicing acceptance.
For example, the researchers point out, “People who accept (negative) emotions without judging or trying to change them are able to cope with their stress more successfully.” And, they add, when bad things happen, it may be better to let negative emotions run their course rather than trying to avoid them. As Mauss says, “Maybe if you have an accepting attitude toward negative emotions, you’re not giving them as much attention.” And perhaps, if you’re constantly judging your emotions, the negativity can pile up.”
Well yes! That’s certainly true, as many people eventually discover, to their lament.
Another study underscores the link between well-being and letting yourself experience all emotional states, including pleasurable, as well as unpleasant, undesirable ones – without judgment or chastising yourself. This was a cross-cultural study involving over 2000 people from eight countries, described in this summary and published in Journal of Experimental Psychology: General. According to lead researcher Maya Tamir at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, the study found that “Happiness is more than simply feeling pleasure and avoiding pain…it is about having experiences that are meaningful and valuable…” And, “All emotions can be positive in some contexts and negative in others, regardless of whether they are pleasant or unpleasant.”
This study found that – across cultures – people who experienced more of the emotions that they “desired” – i.e. authentic, internal experiences that they acknowledged and accepted — reported greater life satisfaction and fewer depressive symptoms. And that was regardless of whether those genuine emotions were pleasant or unpleasant.
Building the clarity and capacity for know how to deal with emotional states grows from acknowledging all of them, whatever their source – past or present circumstances; it doesn’t matter. All are part of who you are as a total, whole being. With that awareness and acceptance, you’re more able to decide how to respond to whatever is aroused — both internally and in your outward behavior.
A version of this article appeared in Psychology Today.