Harvard Psychologist on How to Use Negative Emotions to Your Advantage

Susan David
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Depression is now the leading cause of disability globally. It has outstripped cancer and heart disease and gone right to the top.

Why? We’ve reached an age where there is incredible complexity. Technology has outstripped our capacity to thrive psychologically. Hence, the skill of being able to be with oneself in healthy ways is now a fundamental skill we all need to be functional and stable.

We live in a society that often has this narrative that emotions are bad. We are encouraged to control our emotions and at all times embrace positive thinking. If for any reason we feel sad, anxious, frustrated, we quickly label those emotions as negative and try to suppress them.

But as most of us would have noticed, trying to push your emotions aside never works. Besides, as Sigmund Freud once said, repressed emotions never die; they only come back in uglier ways. Hence, what we should be doing when we have negative emotions is the very opposite of the dynamic we are naturally inclined to follow. As Dr. Susan David said to Tom Bilyeu on Impact Theory,

“Our emotions have evolved to help us adapt and thrive. If we can just learn to understand the data that they bring, we can move forward effectively… When you feel an emotion, it doesn’t matter if it’s good or bad. What you feel is often your psychology doing its job — which is to make you a functional and coherent being in the world.”


For instance, when a mother wakes up in the morning and hears her baby cry, she’s able to instinctively tune into that sound — relative to the washing machine in the background — because that’s the way her psychology has taught her to respond. What we call an emotional reaction is simply our brains taking in all the stimuli in our environment and making sense out of it.

When you’re bored at work, that boredom may signal that you value learning, but you’re not learning enough right now. Feeling guilty as a parent shouldn’t automatically make you feel you are a bad parent. Your guilt might be a signal that you value presence and connectedness, but you don’t have enough of it with your children. As David Susan put it,

“When we try to understand the emotions within us and the values that are signaled by those emotions, it helps us to adapt.”

The way we attend to our inner worlds — our thoughts, emotions, and our stories — drives everything about us. It controls our career paths, how we love, how we lead, etc.

Though when we talk about success, we often talk about extrinsic factors like goal setting, discipline, focus, etc., if we don’t get the internal part of ourselves integrated and aligned, success rarely happens. And when it does, it usually comes with emotional issues.

So how do we experience the value that our emotions and thoughts bring and how do we prevent ourselves from getting stuck in them?

Embrace gentle acceptance

The first step towards using your emotions for yourself is to recognize that we are in a culture that tells us some emotions are bad. And the repercussion of this is that we are in an internal struggle with our “perceived’’ negative emotions.

“When you feel” Dr. Susan advised, “gently accept.” And gentle acceptance means self-compassion. It is the ability to feel something (positive or negative), but instead of punishing yourself for the feeling, you try to understand it. It’s moving away from our heads to our hearts.

In Man’s Search For Meaning, Viktor Frankl wrote that “between stimulus and response, there’s a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. And in that response lies our growth and freedom.” And the most important step to creating this space is to first dispense with the idea that some emotions are allowed while some aren’t.

Learn to see your emotions for what they are. For instance, As Dr. Susan advised, “Instead of saying ‘I’m sad,’ try saying ‘I’m noticing I’m feeling sad.’” When we see our emotions, not as facts but as thoughts and stories we tell ourselves, it becomes easier to gently accept them.

Practice emotion granularity

Imagine you come home from work and someone asks you how your day went. If you’ve had a hard day, chances are you’ll say. “I’m stressed.” But according to Dr. Susan, this label “I’m stressed” is too broad to describe how you are truly feeling. In other words, there’s a world of difference between “I’m stressed” and “I’m disappointed.” As Dr. Susan advised,

“What we know psychologically is that when we label our emotions in a more granular way, it immediately helps us to identify what the real cause of the emotion is and helps to start taking active steps towards getting better.”

Instead of always thinking “I’m stressed” whenever you feel down, try to think deeper about what you are feeling and try to understand what’s going on within you. “I’m stressed” for instance may now become “I really don’t like what I do for a living” or “I feel a bit unsupported.”

Here’s the thing: When you tell yourself “I feel unsupported,” as opposed to just saying “I’m stressed,” you put yourself in a position to find a solution to that emotional issue. Admitting that you are in the wrong job will get you closer towards change than “I’m just stressed.” The goal of emotional granularity is to be able to articulate more accurately what you are feeling in the moment.

Studies on emotional granularity done on children revealed that children who are more able to accurately label their emotions end up doing better over time, and it’s no wonder why. A 16-year-old who cannot label his or her emotions is more likely to be controlled by them. It takes emotional granularity for a child to have the awareness that “though I feel angry and betrayed, I don’t get to break other people’s stuff.”

Just this simple change of moving beyond big, generalized emotions and being more granular with them is extraordinarily powerful. When you have a language for something, you begin to differentiate between things.

See your emotions as signposts to your values

“We don’t feel strong emotions about stuff that we don’t care about,” said Dr. Susan. “Learn to slow it down in the face of intense emotion. Ask yourself, ‘What is this emotion that I’m feeling, and what is it telling me about my values?’”

Though we can find out about our values in different ways, one of the best ways to tell your core values is through your emotions. We’ve all been in situations where our conscience started tutoring us for something we did even if no one was there when we did it. That is what happens when you go against your values — you get alerted by your emotions.

Start seeing your emotions as signposts to your values. This is especially important because what often causes conflict, depression, anxiety, or mental stress, within us, isn’t negative emotions, but conflicted values — a dilemma that often results from the fact that the world around us is constantly telling us what our values should be.

Hence, being able to connect with our values gets us in tune with our internal campus and helps us understand what we want. And as Dr. Susan put it, “Knowing who you are and what you stand for is protective of burnout.”

Final Thoughts

Emotional courage or mental strength isn’t about never feeling bad. It isn’t about how well you can suppress your negative emotions. Courage is about letting yourself feel your emotion with compassion and curiosity even when those emotions are uncomfortable.

Move people have this passive goal to get to a point of absolute peace, and it is this illusion that reinforces our inability to handle our “perceived” negative emotions. As Dr. Susan told Tom Bilyeu, “Only dead people never feel stress, anger, agitation, or fear.”

Discomfort is the price of admission to a meaningful life. Hence, when you feel an intense emotion, gently accept it, try to label the emotion in a more granular way, and see where it leads you to.

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