REBT makes a distinction between healthy negative emotions and unhealthy negative emotions and gives examples of corresponding pairs of healthy and unhealthy negative emotions. In order for you to appreciate the distinction between healthy and unhealthy negative emotions it is best to compare the emotion of concern with the related emotion of anxiety. One is healthy while the other unhealthy.
One reason anxiety is defined as unhealthy is because this emotion often leads to one or more self-defeating behaviors. It tends to encourage us to avoid dealing with the adversity that is looming, to be tempted to misuse alcohol to restore a sense of comfort, and it can reduce our capacity to think creatively and problem solve effectively because we cannot see the range of options for addressing a problem. Avoiding problems tends to be a poor way of managing our lives. On the other hand, concern is healthy because this emotion tends to motivate us to take constructive steps to deal with the adversity we find threatening. We are less likely to be inclined to abuse alcohol to restore a sense of comfort and we are more likely to retain our full cognitive resources to think creatively about solving the looming problem. We are in a healthy state by definition because we are fully able and likely to be trying to help ourselves. Ellis taught that unhealthy negative feelings largely stem from irrational attitudes about adversity while healthy negative feelings largely stem from healthy attitudes about adversity. Irrational attitudes tend to be rigid (i.e. musts, should) and extreme (i.e. it is awful, unbearable) while healthy attitudes tend to be flexible (i.e. wish, prefer) and non-extreme (i.e. it is bad not awful, it is uncomfortable not unbearable). Ellis argued that adversity in and of itself was not sufficient to cause our unhealthy emotions. When we encounter adversity, we are largely responsible for our emotional disturbance by holding rigid and extreme attitudes. If and when we encounter adversity if we hold flexible and non-extreme attitudes these will enable us to have healthy negative emotions that will likely lead to and motivate us to do what we can do to constructively address the adversity.
The goal of REBT is to teach you how to adopt healthy attitudes towards the adversities you face in order to feel healthy negative feelings towards these adversities. This is good because healthy negative feelings lead you to take constructive action to change what you can change AND also allow you to have some happiness or serenity despite the presence of the adversity in your life. This is a healthy state. I try to teach these ideas by telling people to adopt flexible and non-extreme attitudes that will lead to healthy dissatisfaction when their lives are full of adversities that they would prefer not to exist. Sometimes it makes even more sense, or psychologically “clicks” with people, when I tell them to strive to have healthy unhappiness. Yes, dear reader sometimes I want you to experience a state of healthy unhappiness. In a bad situation healthy unhappiness may very well be the only realistic therapeutic goal to pursue.
Healthy unhappiness is a healthy state when you are faced with certain conditions. When bad events occur, when life deviates from our ideal, when adversity strikes and we cannot prevent these things or quickly remedy them it is unrealistic to have a positive feeling about the situation. It is unrealistic to feel good under these circumstances. The thing which you need to determine is are you reacting with an unhealthy negative feeling towards the situation, which may lead to more problems and more misery, or with healthy dissatisfaction and healthy unhappiness that allows you to do your best in a bad situation. When you have determined that your reaction to adversity or undesirable conditions is one of unhealthy dissatisfaction and unhealthy unhappiness you had better take the next step in the REBT self-help process. This is where you look for your “absolute should” and “must” and try to put it in words. Once you get the rigid attitude leading to your unhealthy negative emotion you need to step back and question it. Then try to create an alternative rational attitude using a preference, wish, desire etc. Here is an example. “I wish it were easier to find a better job but it does not have to be so. I can keep trying to look for one AND have some degree of happiness despite not liking my job.” This attitude is what I say would lead you to a healthy state of unhappiness and dissatisfaction. This is good because healthy dissatisfaction is what inspires a scientist to keep working at a difficult scientific problem. Healthy dissatisfaction is what enables the student to keep trying to understand material even when they have made a good effort and still has not come to comprehend the material they have been studying. Healthy unhappiness is the state you want to be in when you find yourself in a job you wish to leave, but have financial responsibilities you want to meet, while you maintain a search for a better a job. Healthy unhappiness enables you to go to that job and remain able to do it reasonably well and not be miserable until you find a better job if you ever able to do. Healthy unhappiness or healthy dissatisfaction leads you to continue to do what you can do to find love when you are not in a relationship and wish to be in one. Healthy unhappiness helps you cope and adapt and still have some degree of happiness despite facing a difficult state of affairs. Being capable of having some happiness despite the presence of problems in your life is an important trick to learn to pull off in life in life because as soon as you solve one problem some other problem will eventually appear. This is the nature of life. Unless you learn how to be happy despite the presence of problems and challenges in your life, that is learn to have what I am calling healthy unhappiness, you will miss out on the happiness you can have now and always be looking forward to the day when this problem is solved. You will set yourself up to find that one day on your death bed you will have wished you had seen you could have made yourself happier despite the problems that existed at different times throughout your life.
I have written this post because it is important for you to understand what state is healthy for you to strive to reach when life is difficult. You need to know what choices you have on an emotional level and what choices you have on an attitudinal level. REBT is all about choice in the face of adversity. It is about choosing appropriate and healthy attitudes and feelings in order to produce constructive behaviors when facing adversity. It is about setting yourself free and choosing your emotional destiny. Healthy dissatisfaction and healthy unhappiness are good choices when life deviates from your ideal. Go for it!