Should You Control or Harness Negative Emotions?

Should You Control or Harness Negative Emotions?

Psychology February 06, 2015 / By Dr. Todd B. Kashdan
Should You Control or Harness Negative Emotions?

Here's what the recent generation of emotion researchers have uncovered - on their own, negative emotions are neither good nor bad. Emotions provide information. The problem is when they hinder important life goals or when people exert finite time and energy to get rid of these emotions so that fewer resources are available to invest in more meaningful pursuits.

When I went to a Ford dealer to shop for a car, the salesguy was attentive and caring. He let me test drive three cars. Instead of showing me how to use the stereo, he let my kids be the pupils to teach me later. He directed me to me an empty parking lot to test the steering control at rapid speeds. He lined up these events so that nobody was ahead of us for the 1.5 hours of paperwork with the finance officer. But just before he left us in her hands, the experience changed.

He casually mentioned, "I hope this is the 5-star customer service treatment, which you'll be asked about." An hour later, still completing forms, he popped in to ask if there was something else he could do for my 5-star experience. By this point, the sun had gone down, my excitement had dimmed, and I just wanted to get home. When we walked to my brand new car, he no longer smiled nor showed curiosity for me, my family, or life beyond this visit. Instead, I was given a soliloquy on how he doesn't get paid much and his salary is determined by 5-star customer service ratings ("I need you to answer that email and answer each question with a 5. Nothing but 5s. I have a family to take care of."). What can I do so that you don't put down a 4? In this 20-yard walk, I moved from surprise to compassion to pity to disdain. Some of this disdain was toward him, for pushing the emotional burden on me, and some was aimed at the system. What happens to frontline workers when they are tethered to false metrics? What does it do to me, the customer?

In this 4-hour event, I could describe a series of specific emotional experiences that influenced a desire to take action. I could separate the interlocking events at the Ford dealership, and my feedback reflected this with a wide range of numbers on the 10 question form (I let him know that pleading for the 5 is not the best strategy to get it). This type of emotionally nuanced event doesn't get discussed much by researchers who tend to be interested in events that are pure negativity or positivity. In the real world, blended emotional events are common. And in the end, this is what we should be studying and trying to help people with - what happens in the real world.

There’s an abundance of work suggesting that negative emotions are associated with poor outcomes but the question is whether this is dependent on something else. After all, we don't have poor outcomes everytime we feel distress and people high in neuroticism are not destined for loneliness, underemployment, and deficent  productivity, curiosity,creativityfriendship, love, and meaning and purpose in life.

Here's what the recent generation of emotion researchers have uncovered - on their own, negative emotions are neither good nor bad. Emotions provide information. The problem is when they hinder important life goals or when people exert finite time and energy to get rid of these emotions so that fewer resources are available to invest in more meaningful pursuits.

With this in mind, stop obsessing on whether something brings positivity or negativity. To understand what influences well-being, we need to dive deeper. How do people describe their emotional experiences? Understand their emotions? What attitudes about emotions increase the likelihood that intense distress does not lead to unhealthy outcomes?

Starting with seminal work by Dr. Lisa Feldman Barrett, a legion of researchers have unconvered how a concept called "emotion differentiation" can transform unpleasant experiences. People vary in their ability to reflect on their feelings, label ongoing experiences, and understand what is happening to them. Some people are able to differentiate their felt experiences with great precision, experiencing and labeling affect as discrete emotions (e.g., feeling excited, interested, compassion, and pity in the car buying example). Others struggle to separate emotional experiences beyond the general valence property of “good” or “bad” (e.g., when I asked my kids how they enjoyed the grass-fed strip steak last night).

Why does this skill of identifying or recognizing emotions with fine-grained distinctions matter? Because people who can clearly identify how they are feeling in times of intense distress gain access to information that can be used as input to manage problems, make judgments, and make progress toward meaningful goals.

Individuals who experience more differentiated negative emotions are less likely to drink excessively when stressed immediately prior to an upcoming drinking episode, consuming approximately 40% less alcohol than individuals lower in emotion differentiation (Kashdan, Ferssizidis, Collins, & Muraven, 2010). People who are better at differentiating their negative feelings are also 20% to 50% less likely to retaliate aggressively (i.e., verbally or physically assault) against someone who has hurt them (Pond et al., 2012). People who were adept at describing and differentiating their feelings also showed less activity in the insula and anterior cingulate cortex when rejected by a stranger during a computer-simulated ball-toss game (Kashdan et al., 2014).

Read about these studies and more in this new article (at least look at Figure 1):

Kashdan, T.B., Barrett, L.F., & McKnight, P.E. (in press). Unpacking emotion differentiation: Transforming unpleasant experience by perceiving distinctions in negativity. Current Directions in Psychological Science.

What are the take-aways?

1. Knowing whether someone experiences infrequent distress or negative emotions is insufficient to know whether they are healthy.

2. Remove the negative from negative emotions and the positive from positive emotions. Emotions are tools. Learn to appreciate what is in your emotional toolbox. Learn how to use these tools more effectively and what works best in particular situations.

3. Instead of trying desperately to feel less distress, improve your ability to identify and describe what you are feeling at a given moment.

4. When we are better at differentiating emotions, intense distress becomes less problematic and sometimes, the ideal springboard to higher peaks.

Want to conduct research in graduate school? Read these seven tips

Get the early bird rate for the 2015 Leading to Well-being Conference at George Mason University

And check out this great AARP article on How to Turn your Worst Traits into your Best Assets 


Dr. Todd B. Kashdan is a public speaker, psychologist, and professor of psychology and senior scientist at the Center for the Advancement of Well-Being at George Mason University. His new book, The upside of your dark side: Why being your whole self - not just your “good” self - drives success and fulfillment is available from AmazonBarnes & NobleBooksamillionPowell's or Indie Bound. If you're interested in speaking engagements or workshops, go to:

This article originally appeared at Psychology Today

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