The Positive Role of Negative Emotions

When Donna Rockwell’s parents fought, she used to go into woods behind her childhood home. There she escaped the conflict and found peace. She also found logic and herself.

Rockwell, a psychologist, describes the day as a child when she understood that the pain stayed back in the house, while she found peace alone in the woods.

Once she realized conflict didn’t follow her, it freed her to own and carry peace within. She was able to externalize the pain of her parents behavior and free herself from believing she was its cause.

The Logic of Healing

This logical separation is necessary for healing. When we start to understand where other people end and we begin, we become free to know and be ourselves.

I, too, experienced a lot of isolation in childhood. I wondered, why did I not make a similar distinction between my parents and me?

Where is Brockwell’s anger at her parents, who ignored her feelings of pain and her needs for quiet, peace, and safety?

Where is her contempt at understanding that she as a child more capably achieved and gave herself experiences of peace than her adult parents did? Instead, they took her peace away, and she had to isolate herself from them to experience it.

One clue is that she describes the conflict as having existed “in the house,” rather than within her parents, as if she grew up in a haunted house, rather than with haunted people. You can’t be angry at a building.

You can feel imprisoned, as I did, among people whose actions are contemptuous. I carried these “negative” feelings and believed they were born within me.

The Value of ‘Negative’ Emotions

As I was thinking about my experiences with contempt and wondering how Brockwell dissociated herself from feeling it, I picked up the book The Obstacle Is the Way, by Ryan Holiday.

A couple pages in, I read the word I pondered in a phrase the Stoics called “contemptuous expressions.” Holiday writes:

Contemptuous Expressions describes the exercise that Richard Feynman and Stoics like Epictetus both practiced. It breaks apart the fantasy of objects we ascribe status to and allows us to see things as they really are.

Here were philosophers and a physicist using the feeling of contempt to logically solve their problems and grow. I tried to solve this “problem” of negativity within myself for years!

The philosophical process Holiday describes is the same as using the words “mother” and “father” while attributing to them not badges of honor or admirable status, but simply biological roles of human reproduction.

He provides examples such as understanding that “roasted meat” is “dead animal” and “vintage wine” is “fermented grapes.”

“Contemptuous expressions” is a stoic exercise in “depriving things of their euphemisms” as well as the emotional attachments we may have to them. It increases our ability to understand reality by using basic descriptions to call things what they really are.

It’s the difference between making subjective and objective statements. “The woman is pretty” becomes “the woman was born with feminine features,” to which it becomes easier to say, “So what?”

In this way, we can recognize contempt as an emotion that helps us remove illusions. We admire people not because of what they believe about themselves or who they claim to be. They may wear a badge or a robe, or use important-looking letters behind their name, but do they actually behave admirably?

A feeling of contempt , or other difficult emotion , when we value our own feelings in every situation, may be one of our first clues to the truth.


Originally published as day seventeen of “Something Imperfect,” a personal 30-day challenge to hit publish every day.

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