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Healthy and Unhealthy Negative Emotions

Updated: May 31, 2023

Healthy and Unhealthy Negative Emotions

Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy [REBT] is unique in that it holds that not all negative emotions are unhealthy. Some negative emotions, those not generated by rigid, demanding beliefs, help us move in the direction of achieving our goals.

How does this work? Let’s take the example of a person who was recently laid off.

More than likely, when we lose a job, we will feel both healthy and unhealthy negative emotions.

Healthy negative emotions are those expected emotional reactions to an undesired event. It is reasonable to expect that a person who loses their job will be concerned about their financial future. They will consider their options for meeting important expenses. They might deliberate about getting into their savings account or even raiding a 401K to keep things afloat. Further, they might miss their co-workers and the sense of purpose that often comes with being employed. Both concern and their sense of loss will lead them to begin working to “solve” their “unemployment problem.”

On the other hand, a person who is laid off will probably also experience unhealthy negative emotions. They might feel anxious about how not working will affect them and their family. Visions of being evicted from their home might dance across their mind. The loss of employment might lead to depression as they believe that now life has no meaning for them. Behavioral consequences of this type of thinking might be lying in bed all day and refusing to even look for work because “there is no point.” Anxiety might also lead them to take the first job that comes along out of a sense of desperation.

Can you see the difference between these two types of emotions? The healthy negative emotion is unpleasant, but it moves us toward goal directed behavior to engage in constructive problem solving. The unhealthy negative emotion is also unpleasant, but it leads to unhealthy rumination that clouds our judgment and leads us away from achieving our goals.

One of the goals of REBT is to help people change unhealthy negative emotions to healthy negative ones. This is done by examining our beliefs, and changing those that are rigid and demanding to more flexible beliefs about ourselves, others, and our life circumstances.

Returning to the example of being laid off, it is very easy for us to become upset about losing a job. This is because our beliefs about work, and other important things in life, are oftentimes demanding. If I believe something like “I can’t lose my job! My life will be horrible without it!” then it is assured that I will experience some sort of unhealthy negative emotion. On the other hand, if my belief is flexible, and sounds something like “I really don’t like being laid off. I don’t know how things are going to go, but I will do my best to get through this” my emotions will likely be much less intense.

To summarize, not all negative emotions are unhealthy. We cannot get though life without being sad, annoyed, and concerned about people, things, and events. When our emotion is unhealthy, we can do our best to change it to a healthy emotion by changing our thoughts and beliefs about whatever bad event is happening.

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