We all experience a wide range of emotions. If we are human, we can not escape feeling the same emotions as everyone else. In fact, the more psychology and neuroscience research I encounter, I wonder that a better name for us would be “emotional beings” rather than “human beings“. Emotions (not logic) are what decide each and every action we take, and it is emotions that make us human.
The 6 basic human emotions are happiness, sadness, fear, disgust, anger, and surprise. However, all of us are capable of experiencing a much wider set of emotions like excitement, contempt, guilt, relief, embarrassment, shame, joy, inspiration, numbness, horror, and so on. It is natural that we will all experience the above emotions at some point or another.
While all of these emotions might be natural, they are not all helpful. Many emotions leave us in a positive and empowered state while others leave us worse off. We also experience these emotions in different combinations and intensity.
For example – anticipation and joy together become optimism, trust and fear become submission, and anger and disgust become contempt. Plutchik’s wheel of emotions provides a good framework to understand emotions, how they mix together, and how they can vary in levels of intensity.
In this article, I want to talk about our emotional waste, or what is often termed as negative emotions. Just like the waste generated in our households and cities is processed to create energy, we can and must process our emotional waste too. If we know how to deal with our emotions, they can be used to generate productive energy.
“Clouds come floating into my life, no longer to carry rain or usher storm, but to add color to my sunset sky.”
― Rabindranath Tagore
What Are So-Called Negative Emotions, or Human Emotional Waste?
What I call Human Emotional Waste are emotions like anger, frustration, resignation, cynicism, guilt, and other so-called negative emotions. They are usually called “negative” in popular nomenclature, but I must clarify that there is nothing wrong with these emotions. Experiencing them is as natural as experiencing any other emotion. If you are a human being, you will experience these emotions in your life. There is no escaping them.
Having said that, these emotions don’t help us either. The waste of these emotions is harmful if we dump it on others, and even more harmful if we swallow it ourselves. But just like household waste, these toxic emotions can also be turned into positive energy. Just like crude oil can turn to fuel used to drive vehicles, these toxic emotions can also be turned into fuel to power something beneficial in our lives.
How Can We Process This Emotional Waste?
The first step to productively process our toxic emotions is to stop fighting them. We must be aware of these emotions as they arise, but we should not indulge them. The more we indulge them, the more we risk slipping into the rabbit hole of disempowering thoughts and harmful actions. We must realize that having these emotions are natural, and we should just let them be.
At this juncture, it is also important to note that we should not resist them either. Saying “I shouldn’t feel this way, or I will not get angry” will only make it more difficult to let these emotions go. The more we resist them, the more they will persist.
Once we have done that, we can take the next step, which is to ask ourselves a few questions to understand what these emotions are trying to tell us:-
- How have I contributed to the emotion to arise that I am experiencing right now?
- What is it that I deeply care about and has been violated, which has stirred up this emotion?
- How can I express this emotion in a way that I can be proud of?
Answering these questions can be hard and intimidating, but this is the hard work required to “recycle” such emotions and gain some valuable insights from them. The more attention we pay to our emotions, the more aware we can be of what they are trying to tell us.
Every emotion can tell us something we care about. Answering the above questions and reflecting upon our emotions can reveal our values and what is important to us. Once we realize which of our deeply held values was violated resulting in the emotion, we can take the next step.
How Can We Create Positive Energy?
Once we have identified what our emotions are trying to tell us, we must think about expressing these emotions in sync with our values. At such moments, we need to take the driver’s seat and prevent our emotions from taking over. Emotions are very good messengers but can be equally bad masters.
We must channel the energy from understanding our emotions towards expressing them without suppression or explosion. Shouting at others (explosion), or sulking in silence (suppression) never solves any problem. It often only makes it worse. We can always choose to act according to our values — even in the face of failure, disappointment, and other strong feelings.
We can’t always control our circumstances, but we can always act in ways congruent with our values. When we give in to the temptation of an impulsive emotional reaction, we try to win the argument and prove that our point of view is the correct one.
“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”
― Viktor E. Frankl
However, we must strive for mutual learning with others when expressing our emotions. The purpose is not to prove or make our point. We must look beyond making ourselves right and others wrong. For example:-
- When we are sad about experiencing a loss, an impulsive reaction could be resignation and cynicism about the future. But a conscious expression of sadness would be to just grieve and acknowledge your loss.
- When we feel anger and frustration, an impulsive reaction could be to get into a fight or suppress our feelings. But a conscious expression of anger would be to make a complaint and sharing our concerns.
- When we feel guilt after a mistake, an impulsive reaction could be to beat ourselves up and sulking in shame. But a conscious expression of guilt would be to make a sincere apology and repair the broken trust.
Learning to transform emotional waste into creative energy for a common or higher purpose is a skill. And just like other skills, it can be learned and developed. We can all use our emotional intelligence to make productive use of our emotions. If we can do that, these emotions will stop being “negative” for us. And we will end up with stronger relationships and a better world for all of us – not just you and me.