“That would never happen to me.” People tend to believe that being a “good” person grants them a high level of immunity to misfortune. This logical fallacy of ​overestimating the probability of positive events and underestimating the probability of​ ​negative events is​ known as the optimism bias.1 Unfortunately, I was also operating under this bias until ​the summer of​ 2020. ​At the time, I was​ working for a high-profile agency in the U.S. Government. I was 25 years old, and I had a bright career path ahead of me. Early one morning in August I would experience a jarring awakening (both literally and metaphorically) when I heard pounding on my front door and deafening shouting accompanied soon after by the sound of splintering wood. Fear consumed me as the mortifying realization of what was occurring soon dawned upon me: my home was being raided by the local S.W.A.T. Team, and I had no idea why. 

As the detectives explained to me in the aftermath of the chaos, one of my housemates had secretly been dealing small quantities of marijuana and “party drugs” from the safe in his basement closet. Why this (literally) warranted a full-scale drug raid was beyond me. That same morning, I disclosed the incident to my superiors with full transparency. The natural response from the government was to initiate an internal investigation; while I felt exceptionally unsettled about the scrutiny, I thought it was just a formality. Two months later, my security clearance was unceremoniously revoked, and my employment was terminated. Five months later, my appeal to the Security Council would fail, leaving me with no income and ineligible for unemployment benefits in the middle of a once-in-a-century global pandemic. I was paralyzed by fear, anger, and resentment that would anchor me into stagnation, with no definitive end in sight. I have always been a passionate student of psychology, and this experience would lead me to ask questions on the darker side of discipline. Why would someone knowingly jeopardize my career for minuscule monetary gains? Why would my agency which claimed I was “family” treat me with such callousness? Most importantly, what the hell was I supposed to do now? 

The Danger of Unhealthy Coping Mechanisms

For many people, the strategy for dealing with negative emotions is some combination of avoidance, denial, dismissal, and repression. If we are lucky, we can process these emotions and let them go with treatment, meditation, or some other healing mechanism. Personally, my unhealthy coping mechanism was an ironic cycle of rumination and numbing that only amplified my pain. What is the cause of this self-destructive behavior? Why would we treat negative emotions with such reckless disregard when we know the result is long-term psychological damage? These counterintuitions originate in subconscious self-protection instincts. When emotions are overwhelming, or when their expression is socially unacceptable (e.g., explosive rage), they are pushed out of conscious awareness. If we do not manage repressed emotions, there can be many detrimental effects such as anxiety, depression, substance abuse, aggression, and stress-related illnesses.2 Despite the prevalence of emotional repression, there is an actual benefit to feeling negative emotions that we have evolved over millennia. 

Why Did We Evolve Negative Emotions? 

Evolutionary psychology is one of my favorite frameworks for examining human cognition and behavior; in this case, it does an excellent job of explaining the utility of negative emotions in our survival. Broadly speaking, emotions are functional modalities that coordinate physiological, cognitive, and behavioral faculties to improve our adaptive responses to recurring challenges.3 One particularly important function of emotions is that they facilitate the organization of behavioral responses to external threats to survival. For example, encountering a dangerous animal could stimulate a flight response that diminishes once the threat is no longer present. Besides fear, other negative emotions have proven to be useful as well; anger motivates fighting against a threat and disgust motivates avoidance of pathogens. Situational conditioning enabled our ancestors to avoid threats to their survival, making it possible to procreate and allowing for the continuation of human posterity.4 However, the flexibility of emotions has also resulted in superfluous responses. 

Our evolutionary threat detection system can be so sensitive that it generates false positives more than 99% of the time. For example, for every 100 instances that you experience panic, only 1 of the situations is likely to be genuinely dangerous. This seemingly maladaptive response exists because the risk of false positives is low (i.e., a moment of physiological discomfort and heightened alertness), while the risk of false negatives is extremely high (i.e., death). Additionally, the complexity of negative emotions lies in the fact that emotional responses are capacities with high individual variation and not patterns that are consistent across our species. Specifically, the perception of unexpected barriers to progress in the pursuit of personal ambitions is accompanied by intense negative emotions.5 As we have previously seen, the improper management of negative emotions can lead to long-term consequences. Evolutionary psychology supports the idea that one such consequence is the development of psychological disorders. 

Evolution accounts for the fact that the systems that regulate negative emotions are delicate, leaving us vulnerable to the development of both mental and physical diseases. In terms of the frequency and magnitude of negative emotions, psychological disorders can arise from both excessive presence of emotions as well as deficits. For example, excessive anxiety puts chronic strain on the body and mind, but the absence of any anxious feelings curtails the ability to correctly identify and respond to genuine threats. Fortunately, evolutionary psychology does provide at least generic guidance on treating emotional disorders. Two key components to focus on are the motivations of the individual and the subjective perception of the events that cause our negative emotions.6 Chiefly, instead of framing negative emotions as obstacles in front of us blocking the path forward, what if we could instrumentalize them by getting them behind us to drive us toward our goals? 

Cognitive Reframing to Harness Negativity 

After three years of struggling with my own negative emotions and trying to redeem my career and reputation, one thing has become abundantly clear to me: if suffering is inevitable in life anyway, it is our responsibility to extract the value from negative experiences. Otherwise, we are doing a major disservice to ourselves because the only thing worse than having a traumatic experience is having it in vain and learning nothing. One maxim that always reverberates in my mind is that the reason Hell is a bottomless pit is that no matter how bad things are, there is always something foolish you could be doing to make it worse. The key to using negative emotions as fuel is cognitive reframing, or retraining our perceptions of experiences and feelings. 

Humans are significantly more motivated by negative emotions than by positive emotions. This often manifests as a fearful response to an encounter with an obstacle. The natural reflex is to freeze up or run away to avoid danger. Either way, forward progress is inhibited. When faced with difficult life choices, people tend to list out the benefits and tradeoffs that making the decision would have. However, their analysis is incomplete, as they fail to make the counterpoint of analyzing the costs of not making the decision or choosing an alternative. You may find when exercising this kind of logic that the weight of not making the decision is far greater. When choosing between two paths forward in life, it is liberating to understand that either will be difficult and that voluntary suffering is superior. This also means that failing to choose one option can mean choosing the other simply by default. The clinical implications of this notion are profound; avoiding difficult challenges only amplifies your insufficiencies, makes you psychologically weaker, and disempowers you in future pursuits. Ultimately, inaction only resigns you from being controlled by the chaos of your life and drags you down a path of destruction and self-sabotage.7 

Alternatively, you can employ a complete paradigmatic shift in your thinking and self-talk. Instead of telling yourself, “I am anxious about pursuing my ambitions,” say “I am afraid of what will happen if I continue to stagnate.” The reason this is effective is because regrets of omission are generally more compelling than regrets of commission. The reason for this phenomenon is that people perceive greater causality and intention from actions compared to inactions. Essentially, there is more responsibility and internal control associated with taking action, so there is less regret concerning the outcome. Conversely, people will experience greater remorse when they fail to act.8 With this in mind, I would suggest that there is an implicit moral obligation to act on your fears instead of avoiding them. Subconsciously, we all have qualities about ourselves that we dislike and may deny, but it is beneficial to incorporate these traits into our conscious agency. 

Integration of the Jungian Shadow 

The conglomeration of these traits is a psychological entity Swiss psychiatrist and psychoanalyst Carl Jung famously named “the shadow.” The primary tenet of Jung’s contention is that wholeness is better than the conventional notion of goodness. This wholeness is to be found in coming to terms with the different and often unpleasant elements of the psyche. This process of “individuation” is central, and it concerns reducing the influence of the ego and increasing acceptance of our darker qualities as a natural part of the whole mind. Reconciliation with these societally “unacceptable” parts of the unconscious mind (e.g., aggression) is integral for behaving ethically in the world (Fawkes, 2009). I would further contend that harnessing our negative emotions is imperative for becoming a truly good person capable of defending themselves rather than someone who is merely harmless. After all, how can you claim to be a good person if you could not have acted otherwise? This can be encapsulated in the expression “A warrior must have a sword and know how to use it, but always keep it in its sheath” (until he truly needs it, of course). 

These shadowy aspects of your being are what embolden you to confront the chaos and malice in the world rather than shrinking away from it and enduring the consequences. In classic storytelling tropes, if the hero does not hunt down and slay the dragon, the dragon will come to burn down the kingdom. In other words, refusing to acknowledge the chaos of the world is not an option at all. Internal suffering and external dangers are inevitable, so I would implore the reader to find harmony with their shadow instead of condemning it to the unconscious recesses of the mind. When we are confronted with malevolence in our lives, the shadow may be the only thing that can protect us in earnest. There is power in establishing this balance, and walking the transcendent line between chaos and order is the optimal manner of existing in the world. 

About the Author

James Raymond is a Security Operations Manager with an M.S. in Criminal Investigations and a B.A. in Psychology and Criminology & Criminal Justice. He is a former Special Agent and Counterintelligence Investigator with the U.S. Department of Defense.

References

  1. Sharot, T. (2011) The optimism bias. Current Biology. Volume 23, Issue 23. (pp. R941-R945)   ↩︎
  2. Elsig, C.M. (2022). The dangers of suppressing emotions. CALDA Clinic. ↩︎
  3. Nesse, R. M. (1990). Evolutionary explanations of emotions. Human Nature, (Vol. 1, pp. 261– 289) ↩︎
  4. Nesse, R. M., & Ellsworth, P. C. (2009). Evolution, emotions, and emotional disorders. American Psychologist, 64(2), 129–139. ↩︎
  5. Nesse, R. M., & Ellsworth, P. C. (2009). Evolution, emotions, and emotional disorders. American Psychologist, 64(2), 129–139 ↩︎
  6. Jamison, J., Yay, T., Feldman, G. (2020). Action-inaction asymmetries in moral scenarios: Replication of the omission bias examining morality and blame with extensions linking to causality, intent, and regret. Journal of Experimental and Social Psychology (Vol. 89). https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jesp.2020.103977  ↩︎
  7. WordToTheWise. (2019). USE FEAR TO YOUR ADVANTAGE – Powerful Motivational Video | Jordan Peterson. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=82u5SUQvjxk ↩︎
  8. Fawkes, J. (2009). Integrating the shadow: A Jungian approach to professional ethics in public relations. Ethical Space-International Journal of Communication Ethics, (Vol. 6(2), pp. 30-39 http://communicationethics.net/journal/v6n2/v6n2_feat2.pdf ↩︎