When I started meditating around twenty years ago, I did it, like many people, to promote positive emotions like calmness and confidence, and to reduce so-called “negative emotions” like anger and sadness.
I thought, as most people do, that emotions are either positive (like happiness) or negative (like worry). And I used my meditation practice to cultivate more of the positive and less of the negative.
On the surface, you might think this makes sense. After all, “Negative emotions” feel painful and they also can affect our health. For instance, too much anger can lead to higher blood pressure. Meanwhile, positive emotions feel pleasant and can boost our health. For instance, happiness has been linked with longevity.
But if you think that emotions are either good or bad, then you are totally missing the point. Because in reality, there is a reason for all emotions, and there are ways that we can use even the most painful emotions to our advantage.
Let’s take a look.
Use These “Negative” Emotions To Your Advantage
1:Use anger to motivate change
Anger has long been thought of as a “bad” emotion. Indeed, Roman philosopher Seneca said that anger is a form of “short madness” that will lead a person to “self destruction”. And The Dalai Lama stated that anger is a punishment for mental impurities.
But if you think that your clenched fist and flushed face are always a bad thing then think again, because there is a purpose to anger, and it can indeed be beneficial.
Anger can be a powerful motivator for positive change.
Brett Ford at the University of Toronto says , “Anger is a kind of mobilising emotion that is physiologically activating. And you can use that activation to serve a physical goal.”
What we need to do is to direct that powerful energy of anger in a positive direction.
To make use of anger, start by getting the anger down to a level where you are in control (sure, be angry, but not mad). You can do this by using meditations for anger.
Once your anger is at a manageable level, notice the energy of anger. Observe how it is a powerful energy that can propel you into action. Now ask how you could use that anger in a positive way. And finally, go do it!
2: Use sadness to power through harder, lengthier challenges
You might think that sadness is a purely negative emotion with absolutely no benefits. But believe it or not, sadness plays an important role. When we feel sad, naturally we want to stop the pain. And our desire to stop the pain can motivate us to take significant actions in our lives.
Sadness is opposite to haplinees. When we are happy we usually don’t feel the need to change too much. We’d rather just stay happy. And so, even if we have an important but difficult thing to do, we will put it off and simply focus on staying happy instead.
Sadness works in the opposite way. According to Greater Good at UC Berkeley, when we are experiencing emotional pain, we are very motivated to end that pain. And because we are so motivated to change things, we will take major action that we would not take if we were happy.
This is why times of sadness are often the best time to make larger, more difficult changes in our lives. Just note that there is a big difference between sadness and depression. If you are depressed, read my guide to Meditation for Depression.
3: Use guilt & shame for self reflection and to correct your wrongs
Shame is an emotion that triggers self regulation according to J P Tagney in The Handbook of Self and Identity. We usually experience shame when we have acted immorally, and it causes us to judge ourselves negatively, thinking, “I am a bad person”.
Guilt works in a similar way, it also being a self-conscious emotion. The primary difference between guilt and shame is that shame causes us to view ourselves as a bad person, where guilt is more focused on an individual event, such that it makes us feel wrong for what we have done without necessarily thinking that we are bad people.
Both guilt and shame can be used for self reflection. Ask yourself, “Why am I feeling bad about what happened?” And, “How can I change my behavior so I don’t feel the pain of shame / guilt again”. Also ask if your shame or guilt is fair. Perhaps you are being overly self criticial. And if indeed you are being too self critical, start practising self compassion.
4: Use anxiety to mitigate risks
As someone who has suffered from clinical anxiety since my teens, I’m not exactly a fan of it. Those feelings of panic can make life a nightmare. But I have to admit: anxiety can play an important role: it warns us of potential dangers so we can take steps to avoid them.
For instance, let’s say that you’re feeling anxious about an upcoming presentation that you have to give at work. You will likely experience stressful, worrisome thoughts. You might think of all sort of things that could go wrong. And sure, you probably don’t want to think about it going wrong. However, by being aware of the things that could go wrong, you can also take steps to prevent those things from happening.
Overall, you can use anxiety to be aware of potential risks, and then take steps to reduce the risks. Ask yourself, “What risk is my anxiety alerting me to?” And, “How do I avoid that risk?”
5: Use jealousy to focus on yourself
According to Baland Jahal, a neuroscientist at Cambridge University School of Clinical Medicine, the evolutionary purpose of jealousy has been to motivate us to act in ways that secure the survival of ourselves and our offspring. And so it remains.
The next time you are feeling jealous, ask yourself why. Is there a legitimate reason for your jealousy? Do you deserve to have the thing that you are jealous of? How will you get it? Now use the energy of jealousy to your advantage. Use it to propel you into acting in a way that will get you the thing that you want.
As you can see, even so called “negative emotions” have a purpose. So the next time you experience anger, guilt, shame, sadness, or jealousy, use that negative emotion to your advantage.
Paul Harrison is a passionate meditation teacher who believes in genuine, authentic meditation. He has more than 15 years experience in meditation and mindfulness. He studied meditation in beautiful Oxford, UK, and Hamilton Ontario Canada, and earned his degree at Staffordshire University.
“My goal is to provide the most authentic meditation sessions so you can harness the power of your own mind for personal transformation” – Paul Harrison