Negative Emotions Are Okay, Too

Patrick Whitehead
Nov 5, 2019 · 10 min read

A closer look at loneliness, anxiety, and depression.

Ranger, Fall 2018

We live in a time of the chewable antidepressant pill. Upwards of 40% of adults in the United States have taken antidepressants for mood disorders. There is a powerful aversion to feelings of unhappiness, despair, loneliness, irritability, and anger. We are taught that these are to be avoided at all costs. In some cases, we have learned that their presence is evidence that we have some sort of problem, a psychological problem. In short, we have learned that negative emotions should not be part of the human condition. Humanistic psychologists reject this position, and argue that there is no such thing as a negative emotion.

Like the positive, pleasing emotions, negative emotions are part of human existence. This means that they are okay to experience. The tragedy isn’t falling into periods of loneliness or despair; the true tragedy would be the inability to experience loneliness or despair at all.

Loneliness is not fun. As soon as we are old enough to enjoy the company of others, we run the risk of experiencing loneliness. We go through great efforts to avoid this, surrounding ourselves with friends, lovers, and activities. Sometimes we go out to public events like concerts or carnivals just to avoid feeling lonely. We might have the fantasy of finding a person to spend the rest of our lives with so that we neve have to feel lonely again. But there is no escape to loneliness. The only way to avoid loneliness would be to avoid experiencing the company of another person. Never make a friend. Never fall in love. Never experience connection with another person. Does that sound like a fairy tale? Probably not.

American clinical psychologist Clark Moustakas spent most of his professional life exploring loneliness. He had experienced loneliness in a personal and profound way. His five-year-old daughter was diagnosed with a congenital heart condition. Without surgery, she would live a shortened life which would be plagued by complications from the problem. But there was a 20% chance that she would not survive the surgery. The doctors gave Moustakas his options, and left him the evening to make a decision. Moustakas felt completely alone. If she died, he would wish that he had gambled on her life with the heart condition. If he had skipped the surgery, he would wonder if he deprived his daughter of the lively existence she would certainly live with a healthy heart. Because it was his decision, he could not lean on anybody else. There was nowhere to lay the heavy burden that was his to carry.

When we examine this instance of loneliness, we do not see a mere negative emotion. What we see is the inevitable consequence of something being exceedingly meaningful. He could flip a coin and let fate decide, but then he would be letting go of his responsibility of being a father. That responsibility could fall nowhere except his shoulders. Otherwise, he could not be considered her father. He would relate to her in biology alone, but no longer at the level of concern or care. If the goal is to avoid experiences of loneliness, then we would have to encourage Moustakas to avoid being a father, a husband, or any social role of loving support or affection. What would be the point of fathering a child?

Loneliness is part of being a human, and cannot be escaped. Even if you avoid all serious relationships, you run the risk of desiring them in their absence — satisfying, once more, the definition of loneliness. Instead of avoiding it, loneliness can be viewed in its fullness. That is, rather than run the other way, what happens when we face it in its entirety? This is what Moustakas did. He reflected on his feelings of loneliness. He noticed how he felt isolated from his wife. Even though she knew him intimately, and they had spent decades of their lives getting to know each other, she could never knew exactly what he was feeling. He might say that he is disappointed about how therapy had gone with one of his clients, and his wife would appreciate his sincerity. But she would never know precisely what his expectations were, or what it felt like to fall short of them. Moustakas realized that loneliness is part of the fabric of life. You can’t cut it out without losing something personal. Instead of running from it as though it were a problem, we can understand it and learn from it.

The same goes for the other negative emotions such as sadness, grief, or depression. Each of these represent a shade of the human experience. When examined, they are every bit as vibrant and meaningful as the so called positive emotions like happiness or the feeling of satisfaction.

Depression has rapidly become one of the leading problems for which medical treatment is sought. Television and magazine advertisements serve as constant reminders that sadness, disappointment, or grief don’t have to be part of your daily life. Cartoon doctors explain that job dissatisfaction can disappear with an oral drug. It is no surprise that pharmaceutical advertisements (read: ads for drugs) are illegal in every country in the world except for the United States of American and New Zeeland.

Depression isn’t the same as a virus. You don’t catch it from rubbing your nose after holding the stairway bannister. But this is how we learn to understand it. We imagine that depression is like a disease (a mental disease) that infects us. It’s like a dark cloud that fogs up our minds, or a nasty devil whispering in our ears from our shoulders. We imagine depression as an invading pathogen, bringing down our morale. This is why it is no surprise when psychologists call it a psychological pathogen, and categorize it as a psychopathology.

Before 2013, psychiatrists understood that people experience a period of sadness after the loss of a loved one. You and I call this period grief or mourning. Thoughts of the deceased leave us with feelings of emptiness, loss, and disappointment. It was not unusual to feel down for several weeks. We might think it quite strange to feel anything other than grief following the loss of a loved one. Imagine, for example, feeling contentment or nothing at all!

In 2013, psychiatrists changed their minds. They decided that it was no longer considered normal to feel sad after the death of a loved one. If you feel sad after your spouse dies, then you have depression (and can receive treatment).

Humanistic psychologists have a problem with this. They argue that the experiences of grief and sadness following the loss of a spouse are meaningful. These tell us something important about ourselves and the world we live in. These aren’t problems to be solved at all. A married couple spend their lives together. They share entertainment, meals, travel, and the ins and outs of their daily lives. The share thoughts and feelings with one another. In short, they share their time. As a husband, I realize how all of my experiences have changed — even private ones. My wife has changed the way I see the world. She has changed what I think of as funny, interesting, or disappointing. I think about her when something exciting happens, or when I’m upset. If I lost her, then my world would change. First, there would be nobody with whom to share these things. I would be alone in that regard. The enchantment I experience in her presence would also be gone. My world would fall apart. It would no longer seem the way it had. I would lose my moorings. In the following days, weeks, months, and years, I would have to rebuild for myself a life of meaning outside of her. My job, which had formerly contributed to our mutual well-being, would no only contribute to mine. So, too, our house, our animals, and so on. The same, in part, could be said of a divorce.

Consider what it would mean to ignore this process of transformation from being-married into being-single. Imagine that my wife died, and a chewable pill kept me from being torn up by it. I hope this strikes you as absolutely absurd. It would mean that nothing — not even my wife — matters to me. It would mean that I have no investment in my life, my job, loved ones around me, or the community in which I find myself. This doesn’t sound like any sort of solution.

When you and I have feelings of disappointment, regret, or sadness, they are always in response to our goals, aspirations, and expectations about our world. We hope to be good at our jobs, but worry that others might not see it. We want to be successful and live comfortably, and are disappointed whenever someone in life proves difficult.

As with loneliness, above, the problem wouldn’t be the experience of grief or sadness; the problem would be the inability for things in your life to stand out as important. If depression is the collapse of the structure of meaning in the things in life that matter to you, then getting rid of depression would mean never developing any structure of meaning at all.

Humanistic psychologists see no problem with depression. It is part of human existence. Without it, you and I could never understand significance in life events.

Anxiety is another (so called) psychopathology that seems to be affecting a lot of Americans today. But anxiety has a longer history in psychology as well as humanistic psychology specifically.

In order to understand anxiety, you have to understand autonomic arousal levels in the body. The autonomic nervous system controls neurological arousal (excitement) and enervation (fatigue). After a large meal, you need to digest. The human body cannot run a 5K and digest food at the same time. If you have ever tried, then you probably know that it results in stomach pain, cramping, nausea, and possibly vomiting. It is much easier to take a nap after a large meal than exercise.

In this way, the body can quickly adapt to two different environments. If you are safe, then you can rest. At rest, you digest, your immune system is active, and your muscles can be repaired. If you are in danger or have to react quickly such as during a sports competition, then energy flows through you. Your heart rate quickens, you begin to perspire, and your awareness shifts so that you can see the depth and breadth of your environment. This is usually called the fight or flight (or freeze) response which happens in response to danger.

If you are surprised by a lion in the jungle, then your fight/flight/freeze response will kick in. It would be a bad time to take a nap, because would be much to wired to relax. It would also be a bad time to eat a snack, as your digestive system would not be working. The inclination to yell menacingly would be a good one, making you appear bigger and stronger to the lion.

Facing a lion in the jungle, yelling would be an appropriate behavior. The unconscious rush of adrenaline would be helpful. But what if you’re preparing to give a speech in your communications class? You might feel like freezing or yelling; what then?

Fear is a powerful motivator. Something in the environment changes, and fear is the response. The organism adapts to its environment. However, the same cannot be said about anxiety. With anxiety, there is a physiological response that doesn’t follow a change in the environment. The perception of change is directed at the future — that is, the imagined consequences of what happens next. When preparing to give a speech in front of class, a student is worried that he or she will mispronounce a word or otherwise embarrass him/herself. This imagined scenario is so troubling, that the student freezes, completely unable to say anything. Because it is directed at something in the future, we see that anxiety is temporal: it has to do with time.

The temporal dimension of anxiety can be seen in the worry about not having enough time. Some people feel like they’re always running late. They speed around the cars in traffic and try to beat the red lights in order to make it to their destination on time. If they were given an extra five minutes, then the manic driving would stop (or we would see that it isn’t about being late at all). Or if a writer was rushing to get his or her essay draft in before a deadline, he or she might feel pinched for time. The deadline looms overhead, pressing down on the writer and distracting him or her from daily activities. But if the deadline were to be extended or withdrawn, then the anxiety would disappear.

Upon closer examination, we find anxiety is not pathogenic at all. Whether the influenza virus will last for 10 hours or 20 does not change its presence in the present. The future does not change a pathogen at present, but it does with anxiety.

When we consider anxiety directly, we see that it is a way of relating to our future. To be sure, this is not always helpful. Concern over being turned down for a job might keep us from applying; worry about flubbing up our presentation might lead us to second-guess ourselves (thereby flubbing up our presentation).

But you and I are temporal beings. We understand our place in the world through more than where we currently find ourselves. Few students would attend college for the sake of becoming college students. They attend with the knowledge that a career might await them on the horizon. Concern over failing a course stems from the potential loss of this career — something that is still several years away.

To successfully irradicate anxiety, we would have to eliminate the possibility of looking ahead, making plans, or building a future. Once again, humanistic psychologists don’t see this as an improvement.

Further reading:

Kevin Aho, Contexts of Suffering

Matthew Ratcliffe, Experiences of Depression

Patrick Whitehead

doing psychology outside the lines

Patrick Whitehead

Written by

Psychology Professor | Author

Patrick Whitehead

doing psychology outside the lines

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