Last updated on 1st November 2008
Unpleasant, negative emotions can be highly functional. For example, anxious hypervigilance in a dangerous situation can keep me on my toes, very aware of potential threats and more able to react rapidly and appropriately. Healthy anger when I am being taken advantage of can help me respond strongly and assertively to protect my rights. In her book "Productive & Unproductive Depression" the psychotherapist Emmy Gut suggested that even depression can at times be functional. She wrote " ... in the wilderness in which the human race developed its current genetic characteristics, individuals who had the capacity to respond to dangerous or otherwise significant circumstances with an adequate set of emotions, and acted accordingly, had a better chance to survive, to have children, and to raise them than individuals who were deficient in that respect."
Clearly negative emotions can also be highly dysfunctional. If my life is ruined by panic attacks or uncontrollable worry or damaging anger outbursts or deep depression, this is not functional. There are useful parallels between unpleasant/negative emotions and physical pain. If I am too close to a fire or have started to step onto a sharp stone, then the feeling of pain can trigger withdrawal and save me from worse damage. Similarly a persistently painful stomach can cause me to review what, when and how I'm eating, or consider sources of stress that may be upsetting my digestion. Pain can be helpful information causing me to pay attention and review my behaviour. The same is true of unpleasant emotional states. Sadly pain is sometimes useless, unnecessary, disruptive information. If I have had three failed back operations, I may be left with chronic debilitating, profoundly unhelpful back and leg pain. This is useless information. Far from helping me, it's like a telephone that rings endlessly with nobody on the end of the line to talk any sense to. This is similar to stuck, repetitive worry cycles or endless depressive rumination or many other unhelpful forms of emotional suffering.
I want to talk about positive, pleasant emotions in a future blog posting. Now I'll simply point out that even pleasant emotions can be either functional or dysfunctional. If I feel good when I'm around a supportive, positive, fun friend, I'm likely to want to spend more time with them ... and that's likely to be functional and improve the quality of my life. If however I'm persistently cheerful and over-optimistic in a dead end job where I'm being underpaid and taken advantage of, I may stay in the job long after I should have become pissed off with it and done my best to find some kind of alternative employment.
Emotions are a huge, fascinating and important subject. I like Kennedy-Moore & Watson's book and Les Greenberg's many publications as ways of understanding this field better (see below). I've also given talks on aspects of emotion on a number of occasions. I've included links to a few relevant Power Point presentations below - if you want to use any of these slides as handouts or for your own talks, you're very welcome to (acknowledgement of source would be nice!).
Gut, E. (1989). "Productive & unproductive depression: Success or failure of a vital process." London: Tavistock/Routledge. [AbeBooks] [Amazon UK]
Greenberg, L. (2002). "Emotion-focused therapy: Coaching clients to work through their feelings." Washington, DC: American Psychological Association. [AbeBooks] [Amazon]
Greenberg, L. website. http://www.emotionfocusedtherapy.org/ Accessed February 2, 2008.
Hawkins, J. PowerPoint handout (2 slides). "Arriving and leaving"
Hawkins, J. PowerPoint handout (2 slides). "Emotions as radar"
Hawkins, J. PowerPoint presentation. "Emotions, consciousness and therapy"
Kennedy-Moore, E. & J.C. Watson. (1999) "Expressing emotion: Myths, realities, and therapeutic strategies." New York: Guilford Press. [AbeBooks] [Amazon UK]