3 things we can do with negative emotions (Part 1)
I’ve known what I wanted this post to be about since before I posted the last one. It feels important, because I want to share with you the single most repeated intuitive insight that I ‘download’ when treating clients: the healthy and unhealthy options we have for dealing with negative emotions. But I’ve been procrastinating about writing it. I’m currently going through a transition in my personal life. Sometimes I feel great and sometimes I feel a lot of complex negative emotion and confusion. I’ve been procrastinating because I wanted to write a good post, and I thought that would be an unlikely outcome if I wrote it while I was in a ‘bad space’.
But this morning I had a smack-myself-on-the-forehead moment when I realised that rather than waiting til I am in a ‘good space’ to write a post about dealing with negative emotion, it might be helpful if I write it whilst I’m experiencing negative emotion. Genius, I know.
So here goes…
The 3 things we can do with negative emotions:
- Feel and Release
Everyone uses these three responses at various times, but we each seem to have a preference for one particular mode of handling negative feelings. The first two responses keep us attached to the negative emotion, while the third, as the name implies, allows us to let it go. I’ll explore some of the insights I’ve received during treatments about indulging negative feeling in the remainder of this post.
We intuitively know that feelings are important and must be experienced. Embracing them and moving towards them is an essential part of being a functional and healthy adult that interacts well with ourselves and the world. Indulging a negative feeling, however, is taking this natural and fundamentally healthy impulse and distorting it through excess. It’s easy to see this in action when it’s manifesting in a dramatic and intense way – particularly in others. We’ve all experienced conversations with people who want to tell us in minute detail all the ways that they are right and their partner/whoever is wrong, presenting a strong case as to why the other person’s ideas/actions are preposterous and justifying their own ideas and actions, effectively ‘proving’ that they are entitled to feel the way they feel given the circumstances.
And the thing is, they ARE perfectly entitled to feel the way they feel given the circumstances! But building cases in this way effectively builds the feeling, making it unlikely that the negative emotion will shift.
It’s much harder to see this happening in ourselves, particularly when we are doing it in a more subtle way. For example, I’ve found myself unconsciously indulging my own negative feeling a bunch of times over the last few weeks. Analysing situations seems like a good step towards clarity. And it is, when it’s done in a balanced way. But I found myself heavily overthinking. Replaying discussions, events and situations. Rehearsing future conversations (most of which didn’t happen) and theorising about likely outcomes. It was like it became my mental hobby. And it felt bad.
Although my intention – the search for clarity – was valuable, what I was doing was not. It kept me in a state of stress and anxiety. Not only did this feel horrible, the stress and anxiety it created effectively meant that clarity was essentially inaccessible to me.
So, how do we tell if we’re experiencing a feeling in a healthy way or indulging it? By practicing self-awareness; our own emotional and energetic response to what we’re doing will tell us. In striving towards clarity, my exploration of new ideas and fresh thoughts felt clear and good. When I was repetitively running through trains of thoughts that I had already considered a hundred times, that felt heavy, dark and bad.
Ultimately, the aim isn’t to stop indulging negative feeling altogether and immediately. Indulging isn’t inherently bad. Sometimes it feel great. Righteous indignation, for example, can be particularly pleasurable for a short time, especially if you were feeling hurt or dispirited a moment before. You just don’t want to get stuck there. The point of this information is help us become more empowered with ourselves and our emotions, so that we can make a conscious choice. It’s a lot more pleasant to choose to indulge an emotion than to do it automatically and unconsciously. Especially because when we do it unconsciously we don’t have the choice to stop. Indulging a negative feeling on auto-pilot and for long periods is effectively like worshipping the negative feeling and the end result of it is usually more negative feeling.
If you want the feeling to stay, then indulge it. And again, you might very reasonably want to do this for a while. But if you want the feeling to shift, indulging it becomes an ineffective response.
When we realise we’ve been indulging, it can be very tempting to flick the switch to repression. ‘That’s it! I’ve had enough of feeling like this!’ etc. Repression – the second response on our list – is hugely common, particularly in people who want to be ’emotionally responsible’. However, this admirable intention can sometimes lead us to impale ourselves on the swords of our own efforts. We’ll look at how repression back-fires next time.