Negative Emotions are OK – Just make sure they are healthy


Much is written and researched about positive thinking and feelings and how we should think positively to gain a greater degree of contentment or happiness in our lives.  Positive thinking is all well and good but when adverse events happen, thinking positively is very hard to do in practice.   “Every cloud has a silver lining” is a frequent statement, finding the silver lining is not always so easy or evident when you have, for example, lost your job, lost a significant person in your life or you are just feeling overwhelmed by life’s pressures.

In Albert Ellis’s view it is not so much about positive thinking but “healthy thinking”.  The concept of emotional responsibility, based in the stoic belief that “it is not the event that disturbs us but the view we take of that event” (Epictetus), is at the heart of Ellis’s Rational Emotive Behaviour Therapy (REBT) theory. This can be easily understood by the ABC model, where A is the activating event, B is the belief and C is the consequence provoked by the belief about the event at A.  Ellis recognised that healthy beliefs (B) (the point of emotional responsibility) result in healthy negative emotions (C) and unhealthy beliefs result in unhealthy negative emotions.  Therefore, in REBT a distinction is made between healthy negative emotions, and unhealthy negative emotions.

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A healthy negative emotion may be viewed as a healthy or rational emotional response to an inferred or actual adverse event.  It helps an individual strive to change what can realistically be changed, and/or accept, in a constructive way, what can’t be changed.  Therefore, it enables the individual to move towards their happiness producing goals, desires and purposes.

An unhealthy negative emotion is viewed as an unhealthy or irrational emotional response to an inferred or actual adverse event.   It interferes with an individual’s view of what can realistically be changed, and disables them from accepting constructively what can’t be changed.  Therefore, it sabotages the individual’s ability to move towards their happiness producing goals, desires and purposes.

Ellis’s work is deeply informed by Epictetus, who recognised the “trichotomy of control”, the ability to know what we have complete control of, e.g. our actions and thought, what we have partial control of, e.g. what we wear, what we have no control over, e.g. the laws of the universe and other people’s thoughts feelings and behaviours. The Serenity Prayer in the AA programme is based on Epictetus’ writings.

It is, generally, accepted that there are eight healthy negative emotions and eight unhealthy counterparts.

Healthy negative emotions: concern, sadness, healthy anger or annoyance, remorse, regret, disappointment, healthy jealousy and healthy envy: produce self helping and community helping actions.

Unhealthy negative emotions: anxiety, depression, anger, guilt, shame, hurt, unhealthy jealousy and unhealthy envy: interfere with constructive actions and result in inaction or destructive behaviour.

Healthy negative emotions are a natural response to difficult and complex events that happen in our life.  Attempting positive thinking in these moments can be a form of distraction from acknowledging the adversity.  It is unrealistic given the negative experience.  Acceptance of our adversities, pains and suffering is the first step to healing ourselves in the long term.

Ellis model is based in acceptance that life is complex and sometimes difficult and in those moments we are going to feel negative emotions and we have control over the way we feel in those difficult circumstances by thinking in a healthy, preferential (accepting) non demanding way.

For example:

Unhealthy Thinking and Feeling

A = Thinking about all your debts

B = I must not have these debts, it’s awful and I cannot bear the strain, the fact that I do not have any savings only debt means I am a failure.

C= e.g. Depression

Healthy Thinking and Feeling

A= Thinking about your debts (NB the event remains the same)

B = I strongly prefer not to have all these debts but I accept that I do, and it is not good, but it isn’t the end of the world, I don’t like it but I can stand it and it doesn’t mean I am a failure as a human being, I am fallible and worthwhile despite my debts and I will make a plan to begin to clear them.

C= e.g. Sadness

By holding a healthy belief we feel a healthy negative emotion and we are undisturbed and able to think constructively. Our perception remains more realistic thus enabling us to deal with the complex situation with all the innate problem solving abilities of our human minds and brains.

Positive thinking may be helpful in the short term but may in fact be like a rug placed over a coffee stain.  You won’t see the stain but you know it is there never the less.

Ellis’ theory when applied to our thinking offers us the opportunity of being undisturbed by complex life events without avoiding or distracting ourselves from the natural discomfort.

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Ellis offered 4 criteria for healthy beliefs which reflect the thinking of a good   scientist:

So healthy beliefs are:

  • Flexible – open to all possibilities
  • Logical
  • Consistent with reality
  • Helpful

Take some time to check your thoughts and beliefs – do you have an inner scientist at work today?

Rational Emotive Behaviour Therapy (REBT) is an evidence based, trans-diagnostic and philosophic model of Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT)

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