Have you ever stopped to consider: what is the real difference between positive and negative emotions?
Most people understand that emotions like fear, sadness, anger, etc. are a part of life, but they view them as an unwanted part. The bad part.
The avoidance of negative emotions is one of the biggest obstacles in our lives. It takes the form of all kinds of addictions and behaviors that end up depleting our overall well-being. Despite this, we don’t always stop to ask themselves what exactly it is that we’re spending so much effort avoiding.
In my experience, understanding the difference between positive and negative emotions has enabled me to be more comfortable experiencing ALL emotions. It has given me the clarity to see when negative emotions are being fueled by my own self-judgment and when they are part of the unfolding of a natural process.
Before we look at the differences, let’s start by understanding what emotions actually are.
Emotions Are Energy
I’ve spent years exploring emotions through the lens of meditation, yoga, psychology, coaching, and so on. I would like to point out that this catch-all term – emotions – is attempting to describe an enormous amount of sensations and processes happening within both the physical and energetic bodies. In other words, it gets pretty damn complex.
At the end of the day, emotions are an individual experience, and your experience is different than anyone else’s. My best advice is to take what anyone else tells you about “emotions” with a grain of salt.
So, back to a basic definition of emotions:
Emotions are the experience of energy moving through the body.
Emotions live inside of us. Like water in a stream, they are constantly flowing. We may build a dam and stop them from reaching a certain area, but they will continue to flow, morph, and pool in areas where there is a blockage.
It’s actually quite obvious to see how emotions can become concentrated in specific areas of the body. What happens when we become overwhelmed with sadness and begin to sob? Our lungs start convulsing. When aggravated we might experience our chest tightening. Or, maybe we suddenly feel lighter on our feet after receiving fantastic news.
Emotions are a human experience, and they are meant to be felt. They are, in and of themselves, quite harmless – yet we avoid them like the plague! It is when we attempt to suppress them or continuously fuel them with negative thoughts that they begin to cause problems for us.
Primary & Secondary Emotions
When we let emotions flow through us they inform us, and then we choose what to do with this information. This is where the distinction between primary and secondary emotions is important.
Primary emotions are essentially “natural” emotions that arise in response to a stimulus, or a situation that triggers them.
Secondary emotions can arise in response to the primary emotion.
For example, we might feel anger when our partner does something that irritates us (primary emotion). Then, we might start judging ourselves for being angry and feel guilty (the secondary emotion).
With this in mind, let’s take a look at the difference between positive and negative emotions.
Positive & Negative Emotions
It’s important to understand that emotional energy is essentially neutral. Positive/negative, good/bad – these are all our own interpretations of different forms of energy.
While it’s all energy, we also know that human beings gravitate toward the forms of energy we label positive. So, what makes an emotion positive?
Positive Emotion = Expansion
What we label as positive emotions are typically those that lead to expansion within our physical and energetic bodies.
Think about what happens when you feel an emotion you label as happy, excited, calm, or peaceful. You might feel a surge of energy where your chest opens, your jaw relaxes, and your mouth widens into a smile. You might feel your muscles relax and your breath become slower and deeper. Or, you might feel a heck of a lot lighter. We call this feeling good!
It is, in many cases, the joy we feel from growing and expanding.
I’m guessing you know where this is going…
Negative Emotion = Contraction
Negative emotions such as anger, anxiety, grief, etc. often lead to contraction and constriction. They are rooted in fear and tied to our natural fight or flight response. They are designed to protect us.
When we experience a perceived threat, whether physical/real or perceived/psychological, we contract and constrict.
If the threat is physical, anger may prepare us to attack, or fear may drive us to withdraw and protect ourselves.
Psychological threats can have the exact same effect on our nervous system. Anxiety may be considered as our mind “attacking”; that is, attempting to act and protect us from the possibility of a future threat (most of which are not real, unfortunately). Grief is often tied to the thought of losing someone or something. In this case, we might be protecting ourselves from the fear of being vulnerable to outside influences.
Negative emotions are a necessary and fundamental aspect of being human. The opportunity lies in separating our emotions from our interpretations of them.
Embracing ALL Emotions
Everything in life pulses to the rhythm of expansion and contraction.
As I mentioned previously, the problem begins when we try to control this natural fluctuation.
It’s not exactly our fault, either. We’ve also been conditioned to think that we should, or that we can control this process. From an early age, we learn to interpret feelings of sadness, anger, and fear as bad.
(I won’t get into the conditioning young men receive around emotions; if you’re interested in how pervasive and detrimental this actually is, I recommend watching “The Mask You Live In.”)
The most basic example of conditioning is when we exhibit an emotion such as sadness or anger and people ask us, “What’s wrong?“
Think about that for a moment. It’s a subtle cue that something is wrong with feeling an emotion that’s been part of the human experience for thousands of years! How ignorant are we to think that something as natural and essential to humans as water is to all of life, is a bad thing?
Negative emotions are a necessary catalyst for positive emotions. If the process of contraction is allowed to happen, eventually our bodies and minds will naturally relax and expand. It’s this openness that leads to joy, passion, awe, bliss, and many more.
A Final Note on Creating Emotions
It’s important to note that we can change our state and create positive emotions by changing our thoughts. Most of us have more control than we realize, and so things like practicing gratitude and working with our thoughts are completely valid strategies for living a happier life. The key point that is often missed is that the purpose of these strategies is NOT to eradicate negative emotions altogether.
Yes, we can choose thoughts that trigger positive emotions, AND we must also be able to fully experience our negative emotions in order to allow the natural life force energy to flow through us.
If this post has piqued your curiosity, you may want to check out my other post where I explore what processing emotion actually looks like.