From all my talk about how idea repair can be used to deal with negative emotions–anger, sadness, fear, etc.–you might get the sense I’m trying to say that negative emotions are always a bad thing. Yet negative emotions can serve the purpose of focusing our attention where it’s needed (see “The Benefits of Feeling Bad“). So when is a negative emotion helpful and when is it just a drag?
If the problem in front of you can be changed and acted upon, then there are some questions to ask, and I’ll talk about these in a near-future post. But if the problem can’t be fixed, then the choice is simply between a) having the problem and being miserable and b) having the problem but being happy anyway.
If you’re in a situation that is not going to change on its own, can’t be changed by you, and can’t be avoided (or is too important to avoid), then the only thing left to do is to change your feelings toward the situation. This requires surrender and being willing to find and repair broken ideas about the problem, something that’s not easy for most of us. After all, we’re generally taught that if something is broken, someone should fix it. Not many of us are raised to deal comfortably with things that can’t be fixed.
Things that will fix themselves or that can be fixed by you but that will take some time to get there also require surrender and idea repair (or the equivalent) if you don’t want to be miserable in the mean time. For example, if you’re in a very bad financial situation that won’t get any better until your house sells, then you have the choice of being miserable until your house sells or of dealing with your feelings immediately, even though the situation will go away in future. Unfortunately, temporary problems often weigh on us just as heavily as permanent ones, and call for the same strategies if we want to stop them from causing pain.
The benefits of reconciling ourselves to things we can’t change come whether the problem is large or small, fair or unfair, permanent or temporary, our fault or someone else’s fault or no one’s fault: letting go of negative emotions that can’t be acted upon creates a happier daily existence and clears the mind to focus on situations where we can make a different right now.