Unpleasant emotions are worth having if they are used well. If an emotion is the difference between map and territory, between how you have mentally mapped something in terms of your understandings, beliefs, representations, etc. and how you then experience some event, person, or interaction in the world- then as noted before in this series, your emotions are always right.
That is, they are right to the map that you’re using and the skills that you exercise in the territory of the world. But this right does not mean that they are useful, effective, or healthy. They are just right to how you created them. They can often be very wrong to the context and so inappropriate, unuseful, and even interfering and sabotaging.
No wonder then that we have to be careful and intelligent about how we relate to our emotions. We have to understand them- what they are, what they are not, their proper use, their improper use, etc.
Overall, a good way to start is to think of your emotions as signals of the map/ territory difference. And if they are signals, then they signal you to Stop, Look, Listen when a negative emotion is activated. That’s because a negative emotion means that something is wrong in your world as you have constructed it.
So to positively use your negative emotions, use the signal to slow down, check things out, and reflect on how you have created that emotion, what it means, and what you should or should not do about it.
Like the gauge on your dashboard, the negative signals are there for a positive use. They tell you when something needs to be attended too-you need gas, oil, engine check, something. In “The Emotional Hostage” (1985) Leslie Cameron-Bandler and Michael Lebeau made a similar point, “Unpleasant emotions are worth having if they are used well.” And if used well, then it means understand what the negative emotion is saying:
“There is little point in regretting something you have done unless that feeling of regret helps you change your future behavior. There is little point in feeling guilty unless your feeling of guilt leads to a renewal of will and intention to fulfil your standards in the future. There is little point in feeling frustrated unless that feeling of frustration propels you toward creative efforts to attain your desired outcome. The functional attribute of an unpleasant emotion specifies what you need to do to respond appropriately to that emotion.” (p. 38)
It is the function of emotions to get you to respond appropriately. Anger gets you to stand up and fight for something; fear gets you to move back away from a danger or threat or approach with caution and resources.
Sadness enables you to acknowledge value and move you to replace what you have lost. Every emotion exist to fulfil a function that enables us to be healthier and more effective. And that why, positive or negative, the emotion is valuable and designed to energize you to take effective action.
Yet if you feel emotions, but you do not respond to them and from them, then you are not putting the signal, the message, and the energy of your emotions to good use.
To put this more bluntly: The purpose of your emotions is not for you to just feel that emotion! The purpose of the emotion and the feelings it generates is so that you do something about it! So, yes, feel it, embrace it, be with it- and use the energy it generated to act, to do something about it!
There is little point in feeling the emotion unless that feeling helps you change your behavior and alter your thinking. There is little value in merely feeling the feeling and not understanding how your system created it in the context of your life.
This realization raises several questions for all of us:
- What are you going to do now that you have that feeling?
- Given that feeling will you check out and adjust your mental map?
Maybe that feeling should get you to work on your skills so that what you know, you can do with competence and grace? Are perhaps what you need to do is to qualify the expression of the emotion.
As signals, emotions come to us as ongoing feedback about what’s going on with you as you move through the world using your skills to actualize your mental map. If you don’t realize that your emotions are your creations, then moving through life will seem like being a back seat passenger of forces that are happening to you without your understanding or agreement. You will then see and feel like a victim to your emotions.
Once, however, you realize and take ownership of the fact that your emotions are your creations you move from the back seat to the driver’s seat. You shift from going along for an emotional ride to being the manager of your emotions.
As energy to act, your emotions give you a boost for action. The emotion itself is not the action, just feeling the emotion does not demand or require that you do something. Yet once you feel the emotion, now you are in a position to decide what you are going to do about it. Will you just observe, notice, and understand? Will you express the emotion by informing others about what you are feeling? Will you act it out in a certain way? If so, to what purpose? What’s your outcome in acting on the emotion? What do you seek to achieve?
L. Michael Hall, Ph.D.