How Emotionally Intelligent People Use Negative Emotions to Their Advantage

Adult with short hair and facial hair looks out window thoughtfully, smiling slightlyEmotion and emotional expression play a fundamental role in our daily lives. Evolutionary psychologists believe emotions serve a primal function in helping us navigate and adapt to our ever-changing environment. Emotions shape our attitudes, moods, and behaviors and, in many instances, even dictate our success.

Researchers generally agree that at least six universal emotions exist: fear, disgust, anger, sadness, surprise, and happiness. Positive emotions have been widely studied and shown to promote inner strength and resiliency. In the workplace, positive emotions can help workers generate new ideas and are considered ideal for effective brainstorming. Furthermore, positive emotions promote social bonds by helping us forge relationships with others.

There is no question there is power in positivity. However, some researchers argue other emotions are just as important and should be carefully considered when trying to achieve certain outcomes. In his book The Emotionally Intelligent Manager, Dr. David Caruso of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence shares his insight into how a narrow focus on positive emotions can limit our ability to authentically connect with others.

“A relentless focus on positive emotions fails to recognize the fact all emotions can be smart, adaptive, and helpful. As we put on a happy face and ask people ‘how are you?’ in a high-energy pleasant manner, we do not invite honest and open dialogue. We set up a demand that the person we ask the question of provides vapid answers such as ‘great,’ ‘fine,’ or ‘awesome.’ ”

Emotion theorists believe emotions such as fear, sadness, or frustration serve a functional purpose: they convey certain needs that stimulate corrective action. While some may try to ignore these so-called “negative emotions,” people with high emotional intelligence know all emotions contain important data—and they use that information to their advantage.

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Emotional intelligence refers to a person’s ability to identify, understand, and manage emotions. People with high emotional intelligence can effectively integrate their emotions with their thinking to produce desired outcomes. In fact, research has consistently found positive associations between emotional intelligence and workplace performance, making it a highly sought-after competency in corporate America.

Emotionally intelligent people quickly learn to identify negative emotions and use them in adaptive ways to achieve greater success. The following are six noted benefits associated with negative emotions:

1. Greater Self-Awareness

Negative emotions serve a protective function by alerting us to potential threats and letting us know when it’s time to change what we are doing or thinking. Because negative emotions tend to be experienced more strongly, they must be carefully attended to. Emotionally intelligent people take what they learn from their experiences with negative emotions and use that information to increase their self-awareness. This allows them to more accurately identify what they are feeling in future situations and strategically evaluate whether those emotions will best serve them in that moment.

Self-awareness is a key component of success as it improves our judgment and helps us identify opportunities for professional development and personal growth. In fact, many psychologists claim that the healthiest, most effective leaders are the ones who are most self-aware.

2. Motivated Action

Negative emotions such as fear or anxiety can be powerful motivators that encourage perseverance. They work by narrowing our field of attention and perception to prepare us to act in specific ways. All humans experience fear, but emotionally intelligent people know how to harness their fear and use it to their advantage.

All humans experience fear, but emotionally intelligent people know how to harness their fear and use it to their advantage.

The intelligent use of fear involves the ability to recognize its presence in the moment and relabel it as something useful. For example, it is natural to feel anxious prior to giving a presentation at work. People with high emotional intelligence recognize symptoms of fear and use cognitive reappraisal to control the fear. They may tell themselves the fear is just their body’s way of giving them the energy they need to give a great performance. In many instances, anxiety can facilitate performance just as easily as it can debilitate it.

3. Greater Attention to Detail

According to researchers, if you need to review a document for errors, it may be beneficial to foster a slightly negative mood. Negative emotions have been found to be beneficial when engaging in activities that require greater attention to detail. Periods of sadness encourage slower, more systematic cognitive processing. As such, when people experience sadness, they rely less on quick conclusions and pay more attention to subtle details that matter. Negative emotions are useful for alerting us when situations are new or challenging and when greater attention is needed to produce an effective response.

4. Enhanced Creativity

Negative emotions have been linked to greater creative output. Researchers have found that people experiencing frustration or anger are less likely to think in systematic ways, and more likely to engage in flexible, unstructured thought processes. This type of processing is associated with being able to see the “bigger picture,” which can be beneficial during brainstorming sessions. Furthermore, because anger elicits a more energizing feeling, it can be helpful for generating the sustained attention needed to solve problems more creatively.

5. Greater Problem Solving

Anxiety is a helpful emotion when quick solutions to complicated problems are needed. Anxiety and fear stimulate the body’s fight-or-flight system, which can facilitate problem-solving mechanisms. The fight-or-flight process allows the body to metabolize a significant amount of energy in a short amount of time. This helps prepare the body to act quickly in potentially threatening or uncomfortable situations. Anger can also be beneficial when trying to problem-solve, as it has been linked to better performance in negotiations, especially when they are confrontational in nature.

6. Authentic Presence

Emotionally intelligent people are open-minded when it comes to their emotions. They objectively evaluate negative emotions, select the ones that will best serve them, put them into practice, and leave the rest behind. This allows them to maintain a high level of congruence between their internal feelings and outward displays of emotion and behaviors. Emotionally intelligent people often value transparency and, because they are not afraid to share their emotions, are generally viewed as genuine and authentic beings.

If you’d like to learn more about emotional intelligence and how to develop it, work with a licensed therapist in your area.


  1. Caruso, D. R., & Salovey, P. (2004). The emotionally intelligent manager: How to develop and use the four key emotional skills of leadership. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.
  2. Cohn, M. A., Fredrickson, B. L., Brown, S. L., Mikels, J. A., & Conway, A. M. (2009). Happiness unpacked: Positive emotions increase life satisfaction by building resilience. Emotion9(3), 361.
  3. Ekman, P. (1992). An argument for basic emotions. Cognition & emotion6(3-4), 169-200.
  4. Goleman, D. (1996). Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ. Learning24(6), 49-50.
  5. Graham, S. M., Huang, J. Y., Clark, M. S., & Helgeson, V. S. (2008). The positives of negative emotions: Willingness to express negative emotions promotes relationships. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin34(3), 394-406.
  6. Hershfield, H. E., & Adler, J. M. (2012). Mixed emotional experience is associated with and precedes improvements in well-being. ACR North American Advances.

© Copyright 2018 All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Kristi Tackett-Newberg, PhD, LIMHP, CPC, Topic Expert

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • Leave a Comment
  • FC

    June 14th, 2018 at 9:07 AM

    Amazing article. I’m going to share it with my high school classes because I think that while IQ is important in the real world, EQ is even more so. We all have negative emotions- it’s what we DO with them that counts. Again Thank you for shining a light on the importance of emotional intelligence.

  • Kristi Tackett-Newburg

    June 16th, 2018 at 7:00 AM

    Thank you for your comment! I couldn’t agree more. I believe emotional intelligence is critical to academic achievement and should be integrated into school curriculums. Studies show that social and emotional learning programs are linked to improved mental health, social skills, and learning outcomes for school-aged children. Not only that, these positive effects continue to benefit youth years later. Here is the link to a study that examined over 97,000 students in case you are interested. Thanks!

  • SM

    July 10th, 2018 at 3:37 PM

    So glad to see this. As a psychotherapist, this has long been known. It helps to start calling them unpleasant, rather than negative, emotions as they can be so very useful and, in the end, lead to positive outcomes. And conversely pleasant emotions can lead to less useful or negative outcomes (such as being happy in an harmful relationship).

  • Kyna Moore

    April 16th, 2019 at 12:14 PM

    As a therapist who works with clients to specifically increase EQ, I found this article ambiguous. For example, it states that both positive and negative emotions are ideal for brainstorming. It references fight/flight, which actually decreases higher functioning thinking such as creative or different ideas. I think this article could have done a bette job if it raised the issue of the complexities of HOW we become self aware, and how we unhijack our amygdala instead of simply reframing the truth of it. Also very little mentioned here about trauma and it’s impact on emotions that are literally uncontrollable in the moment, but can be processed later and eventually healed with EMDR. Would love to see a more thorough and less fluff article on this topic. Thank you!

  • Nicole

    April 21st, 2019 at 6:04 AM

    As a holistic psychotherapist for decades, I found your article quite fascinating.
    Thank you for taking the time to share your thoughts.

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