In Defense of Negative Emotions

The so-called “negative” emotions are labeled that way because they tend to be physically unpleasant or uncomfortable for humans to experience — but the “negative” label says nothing about their utility or value for understanding yourself or engaging others on your startup team. You might be protesting this already: “Wait, but anger isn’t useful! And what could be valuable about disappointment or guilt or sadness?”

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Why do I claim that negative emotions are some of the most useful and valuable emotional data out there? It’s because they are flashing neon road signs that point to some really interesting insights about yourself or others — if you can just slow down long enough to pause and look rather than speed past or u-turn at the first sight of them.

Pulling over your car to explore negative emotions is likely to be uncomfortable and maybe even scary, but the exploration usually yields new insights and clarity that help you feel better. And while “feeling better” would be enough of a reason to try out this practice for anyone — an additional incentive for startup leaders is that with the new sense of clarity, you suddenly have an expanded range of options for how to take action and move forward. Negative emotions (whether your own or others) no longer have to be roadblocks or a barrier to making rapid forward progress.

I firmly believe that the ability to manage all your emotions (but perhaps especially the negative ones) is not only a managerial superpower, but it is also — because of the need to have a relentless orientation towards action/execution/speed — a source of competitive advantage to startup leaders and their teams over time.

How does one start to cultivate this powerful advantage? I often start by asking the startup leaders with whom I work: “Well, how did you feel about ____?” And then, through a series of exploratory questions about a specific incident, I guide them through the road signs that emerge when they start to name and explore the negative emotions that follow in the list below.

With this list in hand, you can use these brief descriptions and questions to start self-coaching yourself through a similar process to build these skills and expand the range of your responses (behaviors/actions you choose) to your reactions (the emotions/feelings you experience).

Angry

Anger is the flashing red road sign that shows me what you care about. You get angry when you sense a threat to someone or something you value. And you react swiftly to protect that person, thing or idea. Feeling your own anger, annoyance or irritation might make you deeply uncomfortable. Receiving or witnessing someone else’s anger might stress you out even more. But if you can stick with the discomfort or slow down just long enough to re-interpret how your anger shows you something: “I got so frustrated in that meeting because I care a lot about ____ and that seemed to be under threat because ______. ” And then you can ask yourself: Is the threat I sensed or reacted to actually real or a false conclusion I jumped to prematurely?; and then if the threat is real: What can I do to more effectively advocate for this person/idea/thing I care about?

Sad

When you feel sad, that is a road sign pointing to a hole in the ground where something important used to be. It’s you perceiving that something is missing from your life or your current situation. And if you can tolerate the discomfort of sadness for long enough, you can start to figure out the subtlety and nuance of what (really) is missing — and start planning action for how to get it back or start pursuing a suitable alternative/substitute. Sadness can feel like weakness to many, but paradoxically I find that it actually can be indicative of strength — the strength and resolve to explore sadness long enough to grieve or process it fully and come away with productive actions or insights about how you will get back to feeling better. What is missing from your life right now? How might you get it back? If getting it back is impossible and you want to feel less sad, how might you start to pursue alternatives or substitutes?

Lonely

Many startup leaders (especially founders) experience loneliness with some frequency. Loneliness road signs point to a desire to connect with others. So, if you’re feeling lonely, that doesn’t make you weak, a loser, or not tough enough to hack it. (As some startup leaders have tried to argue with me in the past.) When you realize that this emotion points you to your own desire for connection — which is a fundamentally human desire — then you can start to plan for and take some action to feel better. Who is it that you want to connect with? What type of connection are you most hungry for? How might you connect with that person in that way later today? How might you connect more often with people like that in those ways?

Disappointed

When you feel disappointment, it’s a road sign that points to an expectation you had that you sense has been missed or left unfulfilled. (This could be an expectation you hold of yourself and/or one you hold of others.)

I am going to spend a little more time with this one because, based on my coaching experiences, I get the sense that disappointment is one of the more under-utilized and unexplored emotions on startup teams. My hypothesis is that disappointment is uncomfortable to feel for many people because, while it’s a fairly moderate emotion itself, it somehow carries this built-in instability that causes people to convert it quickly to another emotion. And that leads to suboptimal responses based on inaccurate emotional data.

— For some people, rather than explore disappointment and a sense of missed expectations, they jump straight to anger (“What an incompetent idiot! How could he mess this up?”)

— For others, the initial disappointment sensation escalates quickly and triggers fear of abandonment or prolonged loneliness and a subsequent over-reaction to safeguard against that loss. (“If he lets me down this once, this is a clear sign he will let me down in some more permanent/ongoing way. Maybe I should end this work relationship now.)

— And for others, they quickly internalize their disappointment in others to feel more in control of the dependency. (Because you can’t feel disappointed by someone you didn’t open up to depending on in the first place, right?) They let the other person off the hook completely by simply blaming or even shaming themselves. (“Sure, he messed up here, but really this is about me and how I didn’t manage him well and didn’t set him up to succeed. I’m such an awful manager.”)

But when you start to look at disappointment as a road sign — what’s so alarming about a single incident of a missed expectation? If you can slow down the car and de-escalate back to disappointment and missed expectations, you now have lots of more productive responses to choose from:

— You can share the disappointment with the other person through specific, behavioral and timely feedback. And then re-clarify expectations going forward.

— You can realize that you never did make specific expectations clear and you can then clarify them to the whole team more effectively to reduce the probability that others will underperform in the future.

— You can separate a single incident from a more permanent and damning judgment of yourself or the other person.

So, next time, you sense that you feel disappointed, ask yourself: “What expectation did I have here that got missed?” “Did I fairly communicate that expectation ahead of time?” “If so, what can I do to give feedback and prevent this from happening again? “If not, what can I do to clarify my expectations going forward?”

Anxious — Nervous — Worried — Afraid

When you feel a version of “anxious” that you might also describe as feeling nervous or worried or even panicked/freaked, these are all similar road signs that point to you perceiving risk. This might be a risk of negative exposure for you, for your team or for your company. Since part of any leader’s job is to look ahead and anticipate risks, your ability to recognize and respond productively to this suite of emotions can be a great asset to you.

The important questions to ask yourself when sensing these emotions are: What risk am I perceiving here? How likely/probable is that scenario to occur? How bad would it be if that actually happened? What can I do now to either reduce the probability of that risk occurring or the severity of the consequences? Is there actually an action to take right here and right now or do I need to just stay present and let this future-focused feeling pass?

Most of the time, you won’t be able to eliminate the risk and comfort yourself with a complete sense of control, but you can respond to these emotions with action now that will likely mitigate risks in the future. Those actions will not only make you feel better in the short term, they’re also likely to yield better outcomes as well.

Guilty and Ashamed

I purposefully did not separate these two emotions with a / slash because while they are closely related in many people’s minds they lead to very different destinations. Guilt is a road sign that points to a sense that you have “done wrong” while shame points to a sense that you “are wrong.”

If you tell me you feel guilty, I can ask you (or you can ask yourself): “What do you sense you did wrong?” And “Is that the most accurate way to describe what you did?” And then you can move forward by either re-interpreting your actions (if you in fact didn’t do anything wrong) or by taking action to make amends (if you did) and either way you can learn from reflecting on your own behavior. Guilt is an uncomfortable feeling, but its productive for how it drives us to repair and maintain social bonds and to learn from our past mistakes.

Now, if you tell me you feel ashamed or (more likely) you start to berate yourself about how you’re a horrible human or an inept CEO or a terrible manager — I’ll usually start by telling you, “Hey now…don’t talk about my client like that.” And I would hope you would tell yourself something like that, too. Because, unlike guilt, shame doesn’t generate learning or productive behavioral responses — it just generates a downward shame spiral. And you soon have no energy left for trying to figure out how to take action, learn or otherwise move forward. So, if and when you find yourself feeling true shame, I’d encourage you to see if you can survey the landscape a bit and see if you can transform those feelings into guilt. For example: “I’m not a terrible manager. I am a manager who may have made a huge error in judgment here that seems to have had some significant negative impact.” And then proceed with the guilt-related inquiry and exploration listed above.

Envious/Jealous

Just like the rest of the “negative” emotions, it is physically uncomfortable to feel envy. (Why else would the saying “feeling green with envy” have emerged in the English language?) Envy and jealousy are signs that point to a perception that you want what another person/company appears to have. Most people are quite embarrassed or even mortified to admit they feel envy/jealousy — but if you can sit with your natural human reactions long enough — you can gain some rapid insight into what you think you want.

Here are the self-coaching questions to ask while sitting with your envy: “What do I want that I sense this other person/entity has?” “Do they really have it?” “Do I really want exactly that or something else related to/correlated with it?” And then once you gain the clarity over what it is you really want you will not only feel better, you can start to ask yourself: “Okay if what I really want is _____ what action can I take now/next week/next month to set myself/the team up to get that?”

Contempt

Last but not least, contempt is what you feel when you are deeply disgusted with someone and want very much to distance yourself from him/her. As a road sign, it points to two things simultaneously: 1) a sense that you are superior to this other person; and 2) your lack of empathy for the other person.

In my experience, the act of naming the contempt I feel or that I sense others feel is BIG…it’s a loaded emotion with intense meaning for people to wrap their minds around. But it’s big-ness doesn’t give you the free pass to speed by if it crops up on your road.

Sometimes it may be too late for the relationship if you’ve felt contempt too often or for too long — but a single incident of contempt does not spell the end of a relationship. Admitting that you felt a flash or a few long minutes of contempt won’t liquidate your relationship; on the contrary, once you name it for yourself you can start to challenge your assumption of superiority and get curious about how you might develop some thread of empathy for the other person.

In these cases, the questions might unfold like this: “How is your behavior or character superior to this other person?” “What in your life has enabled you to act/be/believe in this different way?” “Has this other person had access to these same resources or life experiences?” “What might be going on for them that drives them to behave in this way you initially find so upsetting?” “If you had to assume a good or neutral intent on their part, what do you think they were trying to do?”

And through those questions you will start to peel away at your previously unshakeable sense of superiority and develop some empathy (even a smidge or sliver) for a person who just minutes before you held in contempt or total disgust. And you may find that you can move away from contempt to another set of emotions that are still negative (disappointment or anger) but open up more new options about how you might respond to the person or situation.