Reframing Dark Emotions

4 mins read
collage of portraits of cheerful woman
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It is common to come across emotions separated into two different groups. Although the names of the groups themselves can often vary, the overarching idea stays the same: Good emotions and bad emotions, easy and hard, light and dark, positive and negative. 

We fuel this idea that there are emotions out there that we should strive to feel and stick with and emotions that we should hurry to get out of and move on.

I’ll admit that I’ve used some of the groupings above to talk about emotions. It is unavoidable to recognize that an emotion like happiness sits very differently than an emotion like grief. When we look at how emotions sit with us and group them similarly, we are likely to see emotions like joy, happiness and calm on one side and emotions like sadness, anger and grief on the other.

But, I recently came across a way of viewing these two separate sides that I hadn’t encountered before.

I was reading Barbara Brown Taylor’s book “Learning to Walk in the Dark,” which anything by Barabra Brown Taylor is a book I recommend. Taylor quotes Miriam Greenspan, a psychotherapist, who says that there are no dark emotions, just unskillful ways of coping with emotions we cannot bear.

I’d never heard of Miriam Greenspan before reading this book, but based on that quote alone, I have quite a bit of respect for her. Once you read the quote and sit with it, its truth is unavoidable. She’s incredibly right, but it’s hard to sit with.

These emotions that I’ve long labeled as “dark” are the emotions I cope with the most unskillfully. I can sit with joy for days. Give me some serenity and I’m rejuvenated for a week. But give me grief and I go numb.

I’ve talked on this blog quite a bit about my anxiety and I think looking at my journey with this emotion further supports Greenspan’s thought here. In the beginning, I was terrible at coping with my anxiety. I would lump it with the dark, bad, negative emotions. Now, I would say it certainly sits differently than joy, but I cope with it much better now. It doesn’t feel as negative or as dark as it once did.

Another thing that I appreciate about Greenspan’s quote is that it puts us back in control. When we group emotions as negative or dark or bad, it can feel very external and as if we are only along for the ride with experiencing these undesirable emotions. Greenspan’s thought shifts the locus of control from external to internal.

Yes, grief may always be hard to feel. But if we shift how we cope with it, then it can move from this negative and dark emotion to simply another emotion that we sit with, listen to and then pass through.

I know this quote isn’t a quick fix, but I think it is certainly a seed worth sitting with. So, if you find yourself feeling like you are always amid some heavier emotions, then I encourage you to shift how you are viewing these emotions to how you are coping with these emotions. Hopefully, you’ll see places to shift your coping and allow your perspective towards these emotions to shift, as well.


Kylie Larson, MA, LPC

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Find Kylie’s reading commendations by clicking here.

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Outside of the therapy room, Kylie enjoys spending time with her family, exploring the world through the eyes of her son, adventuring with her husband, running around with her dogs, cheering on our Kansas City teams, gardening, being active, reading and exploring new recipes.

Professional Background
Bachelors in Elementary Education from Kansas State University, 2015
Master of Arts in Counseling from MidAmerica Nazarene University, 2020

Kansas Counseling Association
American Counseling Association

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