• Failing to acknowledge another’s unhappiness can create interpersonal barriers.
  • Working through or processing negative feelings is one of the best ways to stay emotionally healthy.
  • Unresolved negative feelings often lead to psychological symptoms.

When we suffer pain, rejection, disappointment, loss, disease, or another catastrophe, happy talk, whistling in the dark, or putting on a happy face do not work. Every cloud does not have a silver lining nor is there a pot of gold at the end of every rainbow.

Because the world is filled with all sorts of unhappy events, from not getting that dream job to losing a best friend to cancer, thinking only positive thoughts is delusional. Trying to maintain a happy face while tragedy engulfs us is unnatural, akin to trying to laugh when our hearts are breaking. Like Pagliacci, the clown who was intent upon making others laugh while tears streamed down his cheeks, we shortchange ourselves when we fail to deal with negative events and emotions.

Suzy Sunshine and Hilarious Harry

The perpetually smiling individual is great to be around when life is good but hard to deal with when disappointments strike. Typically filled with platitudes (trite remarks used too often to be meaningful or interesting), Suzy Sunshine and Hilarious Harry rely on stock phrases to offer encouragement in times of stress. “Don’t worry; there are lots of jobs out there” is meant to cheer up a recently fired, depressed friend, but the reassurance typically falls on deaf ears when someone is depressed, and the rosy job forecast may not be true.

“He’s in a better place,” said to a grieving friend who has just lost her husband, can come across as hollow and insincere and often does little to provide comfort. Unless the bereaved is a staunch believer in an afterlife and the departed husband was a saint, such platitudes can be discordant, jarring, and difficult to absorb. One woman who had just lost her daughter to suicide was so upset by her friend’s thoughtless remark about the daughter being in a better place that she ended their relationship on the spot. People feel misunderstood when their disappointment, grief, or bitterness is not acknowledged; the failure to empathize with another’s unhappiness tends to create interpersonal barriers.

Processing Negative Feelings

Why is it important to process our own negative feelings? Because strong negative emotions have much energy accompanying them, these emotions need to be worked through, or the emotions can get locked into habitual ways of thinking and being. Strong negative emotions prepare the body physiologically for action, and when action is not possible or desirable, they ordinarily fuel negative thoughts or they spill over into tears.

Working through or processing feelings means experiencing the emotions, not wallowing in them, and letting all the accompanying thoughts pass through awareness until we arrive on the other side. “Why was I so disappointed that I didn’t get that new job?” or “What did he mean to me that I am so distraught over his rejection?” are frequently experienced questions that lead to resolution. In this reflective manner, negative emotions lose some of their energy, and we become open to other, more positive perspectives. Unless negative feelings are processed—that is, experienced, thought about, and resolved—they can create psychological symptoms, poor judgment, displaced anger, and/or low frustration tolerance. Road rage, which is sweeping the U.S. highways, is one current example of unhealthy narcissism and misdirected anger that results from unresolved feelings that belong elsewhere.article continues after advertisement

Denial, Psychological Symptoms, and Impaired Judgment

Among the psychological symptoms that unprocessed feelings frequently create are panic attacks, anxiety disorders, unresolved grief reactions, and depressive disorders. One young woman in her mid-20s came into psychotherapy complaining of panic attacks that began shortly after a one-night stand ended badly. She was intoxicated at the time and her sexual partner, an admired acquaintance, left abruptly in the middle of the night without saying a word. While she had strong feelings about her partner and his rejection, she denied that his behavior meant anything to her. Every time she saw him at a bar, though, she had a full-blown panic attack.

Similarly, a young college student, whose father had died suddenly a year earlier, had intense panic reactions upon seeing middle-aged men of a certain body build on the street who resembled his father. While the young man said he felt nothing at the time of his father’s death, it was shortly thereafter that his symptoms began.

In another situation, an elderly woman in her 70s could not tolerate negative events and feelings. Often commenting that talking about such events left her depressed, she would change the topic to a happier note whenever a negative subject, such as pain or mortality, came up in conversations. Her inability to tolerate the dark side of life left her agoraphobic (fearful of crowded streets and other public places). In addition, her Pollyanna attitude interfered with her judgment, resulting in her making poor decisions about important life events, such as the ongoing care of her mentally impaired daughter. As a result, she failed to get her the medical care she needed, which inadvertently led to her daughter’s prolonged incapacity.

Processing the negative feelings that occur shortly after tragedies is vital in reducing the long-term impact of disasters. For example, after sudden amputations that occur as a result of diabetes, poor circulation, or accidents, amputees routinely go through a series of stages akin to Kubler-Ross’ stages of grief. In one dramatic instance, a patient bypassed the initial stage of mourning during his first week at a rehab facility and talked positively about how supportive his family was and how well his life was going. During the second week, however, the amputee experienced an impulse to jump out of the second-floor window, saying that the only thing that stopped him was his fear of heights. While the impulse seemed to come out of the blue, it was the residual of the unacknowledged grief and hopelessness he experienced at some level.

For chronic complainers and other chronically negative people, exercises in positive thinking are often beneficial. Focusing on the positives in their lives can be a way of changing the habitual course of their thinking. In addition, being grateful for life’s blessings is a healthy pursuit for all of us that can create humility and goodness in the world. Positivity in general is a valuable trait.

However, positive thinking is not the cure for all of life’s disasters. When positive thinking bypasses the processing of negative events, it can limit our thinking and stifle internal resources. Happy talk often short-circuits our ability to plan for disasters that are lying just ahead; it interferes with problem-solving and action. In addition, not working through negative feelings can lead to anxiety, depression, other psychological symptoms, alienated relationships, and impaired judgment.

This post is adapted from an essay, “Positive Thinking Isn’t All It’s Cracked Up to Be,” published in BEYOND PIPE DREAMS AND PLATITUDES: Insights on Love, Luck, and Narcissism from a Longtime Psychologist, Outskirts Press, 2021.


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