Our emotions have evolved together with us over thousands of years, aiding and guiding us in the tasks of living, surviving and thriving. Our negative emotions, whilst distressing and unpleasant at times, have served to protect us and help us navigate through a complex and threatening world. They have warned us when we were in danger, helped us to identify and prepare for potential threats, to defend ourselves from intruders and aggressors, both animal and human, and have supported us to process and mourn our losses. And yet we seem to have grown increasingly suspicious of them over time, especially in Western cultures, as they have become seen as something to be contained and controlled through the more precise, measured, and accurate mechanisms of rational thought.
As a result, many of us will have grown up in social environments in which the free and open expression of feeling, particularly of negative feeling, was discouraged, perceived as socially inappropriate and immature. The showing of emotion may have been associated with weakness and lack of self-control, and been shamed as embarrassing and irrational.
As well as strong social pressure, we have our own reasons for trying to suppress negative emotion. Namely, it doesn't feel very good. Racing thoughts, anxiety, agitation, increased heart-rate, muscle tension, difficulty concentrating, irritability; none of these are particularly pleasant. So the suppression of negative emotion is something that may give us a sense of temporary respite, but it causes us difficulty in the long-term. One of the major disadvantages to blocking out our emotions is that we lose access to the vital information that they are trying to communicate to us.
Anger tells us that there is a boundary that needs protecting (whether that be territorial, social, personal, psychological etc.). It provides us with the energy necessary to act to prevent intrusions into protected space, to defend ourselves, to say ‘No’.
Sadness tells us that we’ve lost something meaningful to us. It gives us the energy we need to grieve and mourn, to remember and honour our past, and to eventually move on.
Fear informs us that there is something potentially threatening on the horizon for which we may need to prepare. It protects us from danger, helps us to avoid reckless behaviour and keeps us alive and intact.
If our emotions are properly oriented and allowed freedom to be felt and expressed, they should arise and pass away naturally as the events of our life unfold. However, they all have the potential to become excessive, persistent, and rigid. Sometimes this can result from a build-up of old emotions that never had the chance to be properly processed and released at the time of their arising, and so stay stuck in our system, colouring our experience with out-of-date repressed feelings that get layered over and projected onto our present-day circumstances. This can be particularly acute for stressful or traumatic childhood experiences that can keep us locked in a state of persistent tension, agitation and generalised emotional distress into our adult years, until we find a way, often (though not exclusively) through therapy, to release the trapped and unprocessed emotions.
If we can develop the courage to bear full witness to our own and others emotions, even though this can be distressing times, it can help us to build deeper, more trusting and authentic relationships with ourselves and those around us.