Can Negative Emotions Motivate You?

Can negative emotions motivate you?

The knowledge of our brain is increasingly broader and this allows us to understand certain connections. For example, today it is known that the brain areas that are responsible for emotional processes are also related to motivation, learning, and behavioral regulation.

In this article we will answer whether negative emotions can motivate us. To do this, it is important that we understand what emotions are, whether there really are negative emotions or not, and understand how emotions can affect motivation. We will analyze various emotions and, finally, we will see some strategies that may be useful.

Understanding emotions

Emotions are transient physiological responses—that is, they occur in our body—that occur when faced with certain stimuli. They aim to give us information about the world around us and motivate us towards action. They also allow us to communicate aspects of our internal world to our environment.

It is important to keep in mind that they are automatic responses and, therefore, we cannot consciously decide what emotion we are feeling or when. In this sense, Nor can we control whether we feel them or not and how intensely.

It is true that, although they occur in the body, there are various factors that intervene in the appearance of emotions. The beliefs, values, experiences, thoughts and other unconscious aspects of each person also influence the process.

Today a distinction is made between basic or universal emotions and complex emotions. The first, which we will share with mammals, are six: joy, fear, sadness, disgust, anger and surprise. Complex emotions arise from the mixture of two or more basic emotions.

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Redefining negative emotions

It is very common to hear, even renowned professionals, talk about positive or negative emotions. However, more and more authors defend this position as erroneous since all emotions fulfill their function: they provide us with information about both the external and internal world and, in addition, they allow us to respond.

It is true that the physical sensations associated with each emotion are different and some may be more pleasant than others. In this sense, It is considered more appropriate to talk about pleasant or unpleasant emotions rather than positive or negative ones.

Language is important, since it can condition our experiences and, without a doubt, generate prejudices. Furthermore, it can generate certain unrealistic expectations about what emotional states should be and this can trigger suffering.

Can “negative” emotions motivate you?

Before answering the question, it is essential to understand that the set of brain areas that are responsible for emotional aspects are known as the limbic system. These structures also have a great influence on various aspects such as motivation and learning.

Therefore, we start from the basis that There is a relationship between emotions, in general, and motivation. However, it is important to keep in mind that this relationship can be bidirectional.

What do we understand by motivation?

This is a topic that has been widely studied in psychology due to its importance in understanding human behavior. There are various theories that have been developed and proposed throughout history.

In general terms, we can say that, in psychology, the term “motivation” is defined as the need or desire that activates, directs or influences behavior. That is, it is the activation and orientation of behaviors towards the achievement of what is desired or towards what allows the perceived or felt need to be satisfied.

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Motivation behind unpleasant emotions

When talking about emotions we already saw that all emotions fulfill the function of giving us information about the world and, above all, of motivating us towards action. Next, we will explain the different basic unpleasant emotions and see what the motivation behind them is.


The basic emotion of fear indicates the perception of danger – real or imaginary. So that, When we feel fear, the motivation to save ourselves from that danger can be activated to survive. Therefore, behaviors related to flight, attack or paralysis may occur.


Anger, as a basic emotion, is activated in situations in which we perceive that something is unfair or that harm is being intentionally done to us. When this happens, motivation is directed towards our own defense. Unlike fear, anger motivates us to set limits and/or defend our rights.


Sadness is the basic emotion that tells us that we are going through a moment in which we perceive a loss. In this sense, sadness invites us to look inward, become aware of our needs and take the time to integrate the loss. In addition, this emotion also invites us to seek social support.


Disgust is an emotion that generates repulsion or aversion towards certain stimuli that are perceived as unpleasant or potentially harmful. We have already seen that the activated motivation is to repudiate, reject or avoid certain stimuli and this happens in order to survive and protect our health.

How to improve motivation taking emotions into account?

With everything seen so far, it is interesting to consider how we can use knowledge to our advantage. In this sense, The main aspect to keep in mind is that it is essential to be able to recognize, name and understand what we are experiencing.

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We have already seen that each emotional state is different and carries a message, a motivation and, consequently, the activation of some behaviors or others. The more we know our body, the physiological reactions that are generated with each emotion and the tendency of responses that are usually activated in each situation, the better we can care for ourselves.

It may happen that, in some situation, we tend to respond in a certain way that may not be adaptive. In those cases, It is possible to work and practice so that our body integrates other possible responses. However, it is important to analyze if the response is really not very adaptive or if we are judging ourselves.

We can’t control what we feel

Although it has been mentioned above, it is necessary to understand that we cannot control what we feel. This means that we cannot control the appearance of our emotions, just as we cannot control their duration or intensity. Let’s remember that they are automatic responses.

However, it is equally relevant to keep in mind that educational work on emotions and self-knowledge can be carried out. This, without a doubt, helps us regulate emotions and their intensity. Being able to attend to them without becoming overwhelmed is key if we want to act consciously instead of feeling that the emotion has “kidnapped” us.