The philosopher Aristotle theorized in the fourth century that humans experience 14 primary emotions.
While modern research has since found the spectrum of human emotion is far broader than the Greek philosopher once thought, I’m convinced entrepreneurs have their own spectrum.
To be direct, starting a business isn’t for the faint of heart.
Whether you can’t seem to land the funding you’re depending on, you’re facing conflict with your colleagues, or your ideas keep tanking altogether, entrepreneurship comes with risk — and with it, plenty of emotion.
And if you’re anything like me, your first instinct might be to push those negative emotions aside in an attempt to move forward. The problem is, by looking for the nearest trap door out of your disappointment or anger, you might be missing an opportunity to grow both yourself and your business.
You heard me right: Negative feelings don’t have to be roadblocks. In fact, they can actually help you grow. There’s evidence that negative emotions — troublesome as they feel — can actually steer you toward positive behaviors and, in the long term, positive outcomes.
For example, say you have a hard time managing the disappointment of a declining profit margin. It may be tempting to wallow in frustration (or numb the emotion altogether). But your frustration can be the fuel that moves you forward if you let it motivate you to figure out why you’re losing money and how to fix it.
Need a fresh perspective on emotions that’s more than a mood boost?
Here are the most important ways to channel your negative energy into positive action as an entrepreneur.
Don’t stuff your feelings
Work might not be the place to unload your deepest emotions. Your colleagues and clients can probably do without you blowing up or bursting into tears on the job.
But that doesn’t mean it’s helpful to stuff your feelings. In fact, neglecting to address the emotional fallout of a work-related conflict or problem will probably have the opposite effect.
For one thing, stress that’s left unexpressed can have numerous negative effects on your mental and physical health. And over time, those effects are bound to interfere with your ability to think clearly and work effectively.
Further, you might think you’re doing your work a favor by keeping your emotions pent-up. But avoiding negative emotions is a waste of time. You’re still using mental energy, just in a negative way.
Instead of working against yourself and your entrepreneurial mission, take that negative energy and channel it somewhere useful.
“It is when we are most in touch with the negatives — and most distressed by them — that we can find the motivation to discover and maximize our positives,” writes psychologist and performance coach Brett Steenbarger. “Indeed, if we don’t use our most negative emotional experiences for positive transformation, all we’ll be left with is pain.”
Find the lesson
A few years ago, I came across a negative review of my company’s product on a tech website. Normally, I take feedback with a grain of salt, but that day, I was already tired and irritable. To say the review stoked embarrassment and anger in me is quite an understatement.
I went through the rest of my day carrying white-hot anger. How could anyone berate my hard work? What would happen if potential clients came across the blog post?
I’ll never forget the way a colleague responded when I shared the post with him. Instead of reinforcing my frustration or acknowledging how harsh the review was, he asked a simple question: “What can we learn?”
I’ll admit, his response surprised me. But I knew the answer immediately: I could learn how to improve our company’s product and user experience.
Now, I apply this lesson just about any time emotions become a roadblock in my work.
So, what’s the lesson your emotions about work are trying to tell you? Instead of getting stuck in that negative energy, try to tap into it for insight. Ask yourself questions, like “What positive steps can I take from this experience?” or “How can I use this feeling to grow?”
For example, desiring what another person has can motivate you to become better yourself. If you find yourself disappointed when you don’t get V.C. funding, find out why, and apply those insights to bolster your own success.
Remember: Your emotions reveal your desires. And if you extract the core message from the negative ones, they don’t have to be barriers to your personal growth or the growth of your business.
Apply your energy elsewhere
That same afternoon, my colleague and I sat down in a conference room, picked apart every criticism we could muster, and used it all to improve our product and user experience however we could.
I’d be lying if I said the anger dissipated immediately, but it certainly cooled off as I shifted the energy to something productive.
Lessons are useless if you don’t actually apply them. So once you pinpoint the lesson you’ve learned, take that initial dissatisfaction you feel and use the energy to climb to higher levels of determination and productivity.
Negative emotions are especially useful in sparking creativity. In 2012, researchers observed the habits of 100 creative professionals by having them rate their emotions at the start and end of each day. Those who began their days with negative emotions but ended with positive feelings ended up having the greatest creative output.
Why? These individuals chose to channel their negative energy into a creative project or task. Applying negative feelings toward positive growth may not feel second-nature, but you’ll thank yourself for not wasting an opportunity to learn and grow.
Don’t beat yourself up
A positive mindset is the key to making negative energy productive. As you examine what’s beneath the emotion and how to leverage it, do your best to swap self-criticism for opportunism.
For example, let’s say you find yourself missing meetings or dropping the ball on projects. Instead of giving in to thoughts that tell you how foolish or irresponsible you are, try to coach yourself through the feelings that rise to the surface.
Rather than sabotaging you by focusing on the ways you’ve failed, a positive self-coach would find an opportunity to move forward with messages like “I need to grow in saying ‘no’ to projects that don’t fit with my mission so I don’t get too overwhelmed.”
Why is this positive approach so helpful? As CEO and leadership development expert Dane Jensen writes, “the self-coach answers with a list of actions” instead of a destructive list of all the ways you’ve messed up.
Disappointing moments in your career don’t have to define you. If you give your self-coach a front seat in the demoralizing moments, you can stay motivated even when things get tough. A positive perspective isn’t going to feel natural at first, but you and your business will be better for it in the long-haul.