Emotions can be the best things in the world, especially when you are feeling love, happiness, and ecstasy.
But they can also be your living nightmares when you experience the worst of the worst: anxiety, depression, anger, absolute loneliness.
When we are children, we are taught to seek out the positive emotions and hide away from the negative emotions.
This leaves us emotionally stunted as adults because we end up without knowing how to handle negativity in a healthy manner.
We lose jobs, partners, relationships, and everything we’ve built at times, simply because we didn’t know how to handle negativity the right way.
So the next time you experience negative emotions, here are 10 things to remember:
1) Why emotions are difficult to get over
Even when we are aware of the way the brain manipulates us with shallow feelings, it can still be incredibly difficult to get over them.
Because of something known as meta-feelings—these are the feelings that you get when you start to control your feelings. These include:
Self-loathing: Feeling bad about bad feelings
Guilt: Feeling bad about good feelings
Self-righteousness: Feeling good about bad feelings
Ego/Narcissism: Feeling good about good feelings
The meta-feelings produced by trying to avoid our impulsive feelings causes much of the anxiety and strife we experience every day.
Groups at war will both see themselves as victims; two sides fighting against each other will both paint the other as villains.
We create narratives based on our meta-feelings, which are based on us failing to understand the impulsive nature of our feelings.
2) Assign meaning to your feelings and decide how to act
Don’t control your feelings. Control the way you assign meaning to feelings.
Let’s go back to one of the first things we said: feelings don’t have to mean anything.
We have to come to a point where we can let them exist without letting them dictate our thoughts and actions.
Disassociate “feelings” from “actions” and “thoughts”; let “feelings” exist in their own bubble, until they pop naturally on their own volition.
And remember: this doesn’t mean that you should start neglecting your feelings completely.
Feel them, live them, let yourself understand them.
But don’t let them change who you are and what you do.
Don’t let meaning spring forth from feelings. Meaning should come from you and your choices, not your irrational impulses.
In the end, you decide how you act.
3) Ignoring your emotions may not help you in the long run.
If you try to avoid the way you’re feeling and expect yourself to be “happy” and that is everything is fine, not only are you living a lie, but those negative emotions fester in the background.
The research suggests that emotional stress, like that from blocked emotions, has not only been linked to mental illness but also to physical problems like headaches, heart disease, insomnia, and autoimmune disorders.
Therefore, it’s much more adaptive for us to recognize the reality that we’re feeling pain.
And by accepting your emotional life, you’re affirming your full humanity.
By accepting who you are and what you’re experiencing, you don’t have to waste energy avoiding anything. You can accept the emotion and then move on with your actions.
Negative emotions won’t kill you – they’re annoying but not dangerous – and accepting them is much less of a drag than the ongoing attempt to avoid them.
What’s more, according to Buddhist Master Pema Chodron, negative emotions are excellent teachers when we dare to face them:
“…feelings like disappointment, embarrassment, irritation, resentment, anger, jealousy, and fear, instead of being bad news, are actually very clear moments that teach us where it is that we’re holding back. They teach us to perk up and lean in when we feel we’d rather collapse and back away. They’re like messengers that show us, with terrifying clarity, exactly where we’re stuck. This very moment is the perfect teacher, and, lucky for us, it’s with us wherever we are.” – Pema Chodron
4) Identify the Emotion
The first thing you need to do is identify the emotion that’s causing you stress.
After all, if you don’t know what the problem is, how can you ever figure out how to solve it?
In some cases, this might be easy: you might understand right away that your pain is caused by loneliness or grief or stress.
But in other cases, it might not be so straightforward. You might have caused a thunderstorm of chaos in your life, but you still need to find the single emotion where everything started.
5) Ask Yourself: How Has the Emotion Changed Your Life?
Now that you have identified the emotion, it’s now time to figure out exactly what it has done to your personality and behavior.
Maybe you have become more subdued and quiet, or maybe you now lash out at friends and push away anyone who tries to help.
We all handle and react to emotions differently, and there is never a set formula for this.
The way you might react to sadness could be different to the way your partner handles sadness. Figure out how you are behaving differently because of the emotion.
6) Repeat to Yourself: This Will End
The one great thing that any emotion can do is convince you that it will last forever.
Whether it’s happiness or sadness, the brain has this odd ability to believe that the current emotion will be your state of mind for the rest of your life.
In some cases, this isn’t an issue: a bout of excitement might only last for a few minutes, and then you can move on.
In other cases, this can ruin your entire life; depression might last for weeks or months, and in that time it could feel like a lifetime has passed before it goes away.
So repeat to yourself: this will end. This will pass. Like every other emotion you have ever felt, this will eventually blow over and you will be able to live without it once again. When? That’s up to you.
[To dive deep into self-help techniques you can use to improve yourself, check out my no-nonsense guide to using eastern philosophy for a mindful and peaceful life here].
7) Find the Source of the Emotion
You know the emotion, and you know how it is changing your life. You have convinced yourself that it will someday end.
Now it’s time to start your journey towards that end, and the first step is to identify the source of the emotion.
While it might seem like abstract chaos going on in your head, there will always be a physical source for your stress.
It might be the death of a loved one, getting fired from a job, or a bad break up, but one way or another, there will always be something.
Find out what that “something” is. Don’t pretend that it isn’t affecting you just because you want to feel strong. Only until you find the source can you start working on it.
You now know the source of your pain. It’s time to get over it and accept. Accept that your life went in a direction that you didn’t expect and you didn’t like.
But time won’t stop for you; the world isn’t going to go on pause just because you feel emotionally fragile.
It’s time to pick your pieces up and put yourself back together, because what’s happened has happened, and the longer you let it get to you, the longer you let it continue to exist.
How can we learn to “accept” our feelings?
I’ve never been very good at dealing with my emotions, but a technique that helped me was a type of therapy called Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, which was developed by Dr. Steven Hayes at the University of Nevada.
It’s a simple 4 step process you can do anytime. I’ve summarized the four key steps here.
If you think you might like it, I suggest googling Acceptance and Commitment Therapy and learning more about it.
Here are the 4 steps:
Step one: Identify the emotion
If you have more than one emotion, just pick one. If you don’t know what the emotion is, sit for a moment and pay attention to your physical sensations and thoughts. Give it a name and write it down on a piece of paper.
Step two: Give it some space
Close your eyes and imagine putting that emotion five feet in front of you. You’re going to put it outside of yourself and observe it.
Step three: Now that the emotion is outside of you, close your eyes and answer the following questions:
If your emotion had a size, what size would it be? If your emotion had a shape, what shape would it be? If your emotion had a color, what color would it be?
Once you’ve answered these questions, imagine putting the emotion out in front of you with the size, shape, and color. Just observe it and acknowledge it for what it is. When you’re ready, you can let the emotion return to its original place inside you.
Step four: Reflection
Once you’ve completed the exercise, you can take a moment to reflect on what you’ve noticed. Did you notice a change in your emotion when you got a little distance from it? Did the emotion feel different in some way once the exercise was finished?
[To learn mindful techniques to help you accept your emotions, check out our eBook on the art of mindfulness here].
9) Again, Remind Yourself: This Will End
Once more, take a deep breath and say to yourself: This. Will. End. Do this for as many times as you like, until the weight in the chest begins to lighten up and until the clouds over your head begin to part.
10) Get Back in the Present
Here is one thing you won’t realize until you snap out of your negativity: for all this time, you have been living in the past.
You’ve been tied to that single, terrible event that rocked your world, and you haven’t been able to live in the present since then.
Your mind has been obsessed over it, whether you are aware of it or not.
Only by getting back in the present can you begin to leave it behind. Do whatever it takes: go out and party, read a book, enjoy yourself for the first time in a long time.
[Resilience and mental toughness are key attributes to living your best life. To learn what it means to be mentally tough. and how you boost your own resilience, check out my eBook on the Art of Resilience here]
11) Learn and Move On
This is it, the final step. Just because you know the emotion and you’ve snapped back to reality doesn’t mean your work is done.
Just because you are feeling good again for the first time in weeks or months doesn’t mean the lesson is over. The truth is, the lesson has just begun.
It’s time to learn. Take the time over the near future to understand what happened. See yourself in retrospect: the terrible event that set off your negative emotions, how you lost yourself in the storm of negativity, why you lost yourself, and how you picked yourself up again.
How can you handle yourself better next time? How can you prepare yourself? What was missing in your life that made you collapse so suddenly to this negativity?
Ask yourself these questions, and do your best to learn from them. Now it’s time to move on, with the knowledge that you can take anything the world throws at you.