No such thing as negative: Embracing every emotion

Dr. Michael O’Brien
Internalizing negative emotions can stymie creativity.

Engaging with negative emotions could help executives lead more effectively. 

Happiness? Good. Anger? Bad. Stress? Bad. Hope? Good. You could do that with every emotion that arises behind the executive desk, labeling it based on the way it makes you feel. Emotions are like that, right? They’re either good or they’re bad – you either want to feel them, or you don’t.

As it turns out, it’s not that simple. While neuroscientists once saw emotions as either strictly negative or positive, recent research has inspired them to take a more nuanced view of how our feelings affect us. Through this lens, they have been able to identify positive outcomes from even the emotions we would typically choose to avoid or repress. In fact, engaging with those emotions could even make us better leaders.

When someone’s angry, we say they’re “seeing red,” “foaming at the mouth,” or ready to “take off the gloves.” But these aren’t symptoms of anger itself, they’re manifestations of fury, the way we often express our anger. According to Psychology Today author Joann Ellison, understanding this difference is critical. For all of fury’s blinding and destructive power, anger can be informative and constructive.

“The key to leveraging anger is catching it before it ignites into fury.”

“Anger is…an appetitive force that not only moves us toward what we want but fuels optimism, creative brainstorming, and problem solving by focusing the mind and mood in highly refined ways,” Ellison explained in her 2014 article “Go Forth In Anger.” Ellison notes that anger actually causes cortisol levels to drop, allowing us to focus without the distraction of stress. She even goes so far as to categorize anger as opposite from avoidant emotions like fear, sadness and anxiety.

The key to leveraging anger as a motivator is catching it before it ignites into fury. By owning your anger rather than letting it own you, you can take advantage of the way it prepared your brain for action.

When you’re stuck in the mire of grief, your sadness might feel completely debilitating. Or, if it stems from a failed objective at work, that same sadness can sting like a slap in the face. As unproductive as either response may feel in the moment, sadness is actually one of the greatest motivators for change.

When you’re battling the blues, you actually become a more rational and concrete thinker, author Matthew Hudson wrote in “Beyond Happiness: The Upside of Feeling Down.” It also sharpens the mind – reducing gullibility and forgetfulness – and enhances our empathy. According to Hudson, these analytical skills emerge during depression as tools to correct the cause of our grief. Happiness, on the other hand, makes us more likely to accept surface-level truths and act rashly (Icarus, anyone?).

Repressing negative feelings can end up hurting productivity, not rescuing it. Repressing negative feelings can end up hurting productivity, not rescuing it.

The next time you fall short of a goal, pause before you push yourself to “get over it.” According to Hudson, its only by avoiding this sadness that we give it debilitating power. Instead, allow your brain to make sense of the loss, then take advantage of the clarity and introspection your sadness conjures and create a new action plan. By listening to everything the emotion has to tell you before you strive past it you strip it of its corrosive potential.

Anger and sadness are just the most obvious examples of this paradoxical reality. Productivity can be similarly gleaned out of jealousy, regret, shame and fear. However, doing so requires executives to have the courage not to run from these emotions, but to embrace and learn from them. Only then will you be able to lead confidently in any circumstance.

At the O’Brien Group, we work with healthcare leaders to refine their ability to lead through any emotion. For more tips on how to master yourself and maximize your leadership potential, please call 513-821-9580 or email me at