There isn’t any such thing as a negative emotion. There are negative things that we do with our emotions, but our emotions themselves are neither negative nor positive. They simply are.
Consider anger. When we are angry, we might express it as hostility—emitting unmistakable negativity, bristly and mean-spirited, tight and heartless. Yes, we are angry, but we are filtering—and forcing— it through a darkly twisted lens, so that it is expressed not as clean anger (that is, anger free of aggression, blaming, and shaming) but as hostility.
Does this mean that anger itself is therefore a negative emotion? No. It means we have handled our anger negatively, putting a mean-spirited spin on it. Our choice. Hostility is not a negative emotion but rather a negative framing and expression of anger.
Anger itself can be a positive force: getting angry that you have just lost your job may give you the energy and sheer drive to pursue more fitting work. Likewise, getting angry about the abuse you are suffering in a relationship will help fuel you to form healthy boundaries, providing much of the motivation and strength needed to either improve the relationship or leave it.
Those of us caught up in spiritual bypassing tend to slap the labels of “positive” and “negative” onto emotions as if such qualities were absolute givens. But the more we investigate the reality of our lives, the clearer it becomes that ascribing qualities like “negative” and “positive” to emotions is inevitably a context-bound undertaking.
Adapted from Spiritual Bypassing: When Spirituality Disconnects Us from What Really Matters, by Robert Augustus Masters, published by North Atlantic Books, copyright © 2010 by Robert Augustus Masters. Reprinted by permission of the publisher.
Sign up for Tricycle’s newsletters
Thank you for subscribing to Tricycle! As a nonprofit, we depend on readers like you to keep Buddhist teachings and practices widely available.