Emotions: The Good, Bad and Unproductive


Emotions: A Closer Look

By: Alexandra DeWoskin, LCSW

Emotions are necessary.  Feelings give us a much richer and fuller life experience. It’s important for us to feel emotions so they can be productive.  We learn, evolve, process, and exercise our psyche via our emotions.  They allow us to purge stress.  They provide us wisdom and can help us explore and reflect.

Emotions can tell others what we need and create empathic connection in interpersonal relationships. When you tell friends or family members that you are feeling happy, sad, excited, or frightened, you are giving them important information that they can use to help or create empathy. Emotions help to keep us safe by warning of impending danger and drive us to take actions we need for our survival (fight, flight or freeze responses).

We feel things because those things matter to us.  So, feelings can give us important clues about the inner things we care about which can sometimes be beyond our conscious mind. Emotions help us identify when something needs to change and can play an important role in how you think and behave. We may need to change our own thoughts or attitudes. Or we may need to change something in our relationships or environment. But we need to be able to identify how we feel and why we feel a certain way.

Emotion is often defined as a complex state of feeling that results in physical and psychological changes that influence thought and behavior. Emotionality is associated with a range of psychological phenomena, including temperament, personality, mood, and motivation.

Human emotion involves physiological arousal, expressive behaviors, and conscious experience. Our emotions exist because they serve an adaptive role and occur as a result of physiological reactions to events. They motivate people to respond quickly to stimuli in the environment, which helps improve the chances of success and survival.

Emotions motivate action impulses. If you’re feeling sad, there’s probably something you need to let go of, such as a loss, a dream or a goal. If you’re feeling anxious, there’s probably something you need to face or address.

This could be something from your past, something in your present or something you’re worrying will happen in the future. If you’re feeling angry, there’s probably something you feel isn’t fair, and you need to identify what it is.

Your emotions have a major influence on the decisions you make. When you interact with other people, it is important to give clues to help them understand how you are feeling. These cues might involve emotional expression through body language, such as various facial expressions connected with the particular emotions you are experiencing. In other cases, it might involve directly stating how you feel.

Just as your own emotions provide valuable information to others, the emotional expressions of those around you also give a wealth of social information. Social communication is an important part of your daily life and relationships.

Being able to interpret and react to the emotions of others is essential. It allows you to respond appropriately and build deeper, more meaningful relationships with yourself, your friends, family, and loved ones.

It also allows you to communicate effectively in a variety of social situations. All in all, emotions are a crucially important aspect of our psychological composition, having meaning and function to each of us individually, to our relationships with others in groups, and to our societies as a whole.

Because emotions prepare our bodies for immediate action, influence thoughts, and can be felt, they are important motivators of future behavior. Many of us strive to experience the feelings of satisfaction, joy, pride, or triumph in our accomplishments and achievements. At the same time, we also work very hard to avoid strong negative feelings.

Unproductive emotions do the opposite of all we’ve discussed, and keep us very stuck.  These four emotions: Guilt, Shame, Resentment, and Regret don’t serve us in any of the ways emotions should.  In some ways, I don’t see them as emotions at all, but more so like umbrella terms made up of sometime several productive emotions.

We don’t learn, we don’t grow, we don’t communicate empathy or needs to others.  So, we ruminate, especially about what we can’t control to avoid working through difficult feelings. When my clients are struggling with one of these unproductive emotions, I ask them to think of them as being made up of a bunch of other emotions.

And, I challenge them to identify those emotions, almost like the ingredients of a recipe.  And, then we start to process, learn, and grow from those identified emotions.

Guilt robs us of energy that can be used to repair a situation, to grow, to learn, and to soothe the wronged in any way.  And it keeps an individual from learning how to avoid a past act that was unproductive.  Guilt stems from mental judgment that an act is “bad.”  Since guilt involves regret, another stagnant emotion, over a past action, it essentially takes a person out of the present moment, and mentally locks them to the past.

I often ask clients if they’ve ever made a good or productive decision for self or others that was motivated by guilt.  To date, I have yet to have a client answer ‘yes’.  It’s an important question to ask yourself when mired in guilt.

Shame hurts us so much because it’s often tied to our sense of identity. When we shame ourselves, we’re making the judgement that we’re not good enough or are not living up to expectations.  Often it feels like no matter what you do in the midst of shame, you can’t move past that feeling, again stuck. You may ruminate about other ways that you have disappointed or embarrassed yourself or others.

This can lead to the dreaded shame spiral, the loss of self-control over something that makes one feel worthless and pathetic. Due to these feelings of low self-worth and guilt, the action that triggered the shame spiral is repeated and the degradation of one’s self continues. It is a viscous cycle that repeats itself, bringing you down further as it repeats.  It’s a very isolating space to be.

It doesn’t make you or anyone else feel better and prevents one from learning and evolving.

Resentment is basically unresolved anger.  Had we processed and resolved the anger, we would have learned, grown, and forgiven.  But some people stay stuck in resentment for years or a lifetime.

Thus, cutting themselves off from relationships and experiences.  Resentment can become a part of your identity and who you are as a person. At this point, you move from showing resentful behavior to being a resentful person.

So often this identity is counter to who you are or want to be.  You’re stuck because the fear of change, the familiar, might include processing of emotions that are complicated and painful.  But, doing so will ultimately set you free and make you more available to healthy relationships.

Regret is unproductive when we don’t use the lessons it gives us or when we choose to keep suffering from it.  You can’t rewind time and change the past.  But you can change your relationship to the past.

Since you can’t fix the past, beating yourself won’t help.  And that is essentially what regret is.  Regret feels like an anchor holding us down. Moving on is again about progressing and growing, not about not being stuck and allowing the past to guide our actions in the future.

When we recognize unproductive emotions and the barriers they create, we have an opportunity to delve further and make them productive, growth experiences. When you feel a negative, paralyzing emotion, use that as warning sign that there is work to be done to set you free.  Try the following:

  1. Identify your emotion. When you’re feeling guilt, shame, resentment or regret, don’t try to distract yourself or judge yourself for feeling it. Own and acknowledge it in the moment. Remind yourself that feelings are necessary and always ‘right’.  They are feelings.
  2. Describe your emotion.Find as many words/emotions as you need to fully convey to yourself the depth of your guilt, shame, resentment or regret. This is known as emotional labeling. Identifying the breadth of our emotions (those ingredients), helps us create a language that we can use to discuss with others and gives us our own narrative to process. Get specific, for example, instead of labeling an emotion as just regret, think about whether you’re feeling sad, angry, envious, etc. When you identify negative emotions, you can better accept then manage them.
  3. Commit to learning from your, now identified, emotions.Granted, this may come with some pain or discomfort.  But, working through allows us to let go thus, setting us free.  This may ultimately come in the form of gratitude for what we learned from the experience or forgiveness of self and others…relinquishing the control we give to people or situations for making us feel a way that is incongruent to how we want to feel.
  4. Consider what you really want or value.When you feel hurt, sorrow, angst and stuck about the past, remind yourself what really matters in your life. Think of the things that you know you must work toward to make your life fulfilling. Do you want to feel negative emotional weight or connection to self and others?  Make a commitment to intervene early in these instances.  As, the longer you stay stuck, the more embedded these feelings become and the more difficult it is to climb out.