Afflictive Emotions Are as Heavy as Lead

January 16, 2020
You can't deny afflictive or negative emotions and you can't just set them aside in the corner as if they didn't exist. Accepting their presence is key to understanding what they're trying to communicate.

Afflictive or negative emotions are part of everyone’s emotional record. Thus, they act as true weights capable of stunting your growth and filling your mind with adverse thoughts that are pointless. Also, they lead you to drift from dangerous discouragement. Something as important as naming these states and taking away their power will help you move forward with greater integrity.

Envy, frustration, anger, resentment, guilt, and disappointment… Generally, most people are familiar with these emotions. In fact, most know what it feels like to live with them and how much space they occupy in their lives if they feed them. Thus, as Dr. James Gross, a psychologist at Stanford University and one of the exponents in the field of emotional management explains, afflictive or negative emotions are like brambles (they grow from the darkest areas of a person’s being).

Brambles are a type of climbing plant that tend to cling to everything within their reach. Gross points out that the more power you give to these emotional states, the more brambles will grow around you and progressively immobilize you. It’s possible to intuit, therefore, that it isn’t easy to get rid of them. In fact, it isn’t enough to just tear them away.

Afflictive or negative emotions will stop growing as soon as you stop feeding them. It’s that simple. To achieve it, learning to move through this type of internal process requires that you sow the seeds of self-regulation within yourself.

“There can be no rainbow without a cloud and a storm.”

-John H. Vincent-

A climbing vine holding on to a metal structure.

Afflictive emotions are important

In emotional psychology, it’s very common to attribute negative and almost even “pathological” roles to afflictive emotions. Hence, for example, there are many classic articles and self-help books intended to help you “eliminate or eradicate” such states. Note that this idea isn’t entirely correct.

As we mentioned above, these dimensions are part of your emotional record. You can’t just tear them out of you like those annoying brambles. Because the land itself, in its magical diversity, can house all kinds of species. This way, dimensions as basic as sadness, fear, disappointment, or anger are also part of who you are. And you can’t eradicate anything like that. In fact, you can’t deny the emotions that are, therefore, part of your essence.

The key lies in two basic characteristics: understanding and regulating. Knowing that negative emotions exist, naming them, understanding them, and managing them are the best things you can do to regulate your behavior.

Maleficent is a symbol of afflictive emotions

A scene of Disney's Sleeping Beauty.

Who doesn’t know the story of Sleeping Beauty! In this old story, the protagonist’s parents organize a party to celebrate her birth. In the kingdom, they had thirteen wise women, with thirteen figures endowed with magical arts and great power. However, they chose to invite only twelve of them because one of them was difficult and had a bad temper.

Thus, she didn’t receive the invitation and the royals figured she wouldn’t mind. However, the thirteenth lady, skilled in the dark arts, did mind. Thus, she put the well-known curse on the little girl. One of the morals of Sleeping Beauty is that it was easier for everyone to live with the good fairies. With the twelve gentle, optimistic, affectionate, and cheerful women who were always so easy to relate to.

Inviting the darkest witch to the table, giving this complex figure a chair, would’ve been an act of inclusion and responsibility. The way they treated her is very similar to what people do with their afflictive emotions. Yes, most people deny them and pretend they don’t exist. And the result of such an act is almost always terrible and harmful.

This is because people forget that good and bad emotions are mere guests. Some visit and others leave. There are times when the least pleasant arrive but, as such, you must also welcome them and interact with them. You just have to remember not to give them excessive power and not allow them to stay for too long.

Self-control is the key to your well-being

Emotions must have an adaptive value. That is, they must facilitate the adaptation to each daily circumstance. Thus, studies such as this one conducted at the University of Maryland remind us that being skilled in emotional regulation allows us to function effectively in any context and social situation.

A woman disintegrating.

Therefore, you must become an excellent manager of these complex internal dimensions. Go along with them without vetting them, denying them, or tearing them out of your emotional record as this is the key to your well-being. This is how to go about it:

  • Afflictive emotions often appear with physical discomfort as a somatic marker. You must detect them, as well as the rumor of those negative thoughts with which they come along.
  • Understand why they appear and what they’re trying to tell you.
  • Give yourself time and travel with them in a relaxed way. Meditation can help you.
  • Channel them and express them. Talk to someone. Make use of therapeutic writing. Play a sport to release your tension.
  • Find a strategy to solve them. Don’t leave the discomfort you feel today for tomorrow and be proactive with your emotions.

To conclude, let’s not forget the most important recommendation: afflictive emotions are mere guests. Thus, many of them will leave as soon as they arrive. Thus, don’t give permanent spaces to those who, in a short time, can appropriate everything.

Gross, J. James (2015). Handbook of Emotion Regulation. Guilford Press