How to Work with Negative Feelings.
The following is a road map for working out troubling emotions.
For starters, negative feelings can be very useful, but they often don’t feel good. They are meant to agitate us into action so that we can improve our situation. That agitation can be a force for positive change.
Step 1. Identify the Feeling and What it Indicates.
The first thing to do is reframe those negative emotions as indicators, like on a dashboard of a car, that are alerting us to important needs. For example:
- Anger is an indicator that something may not be fair. It motivates us to make things right, or to forgive.
- Sadness is an indicator that we may be missing something or someone important to us. It motivates us to meet those needs that were once satisfied by other means.
- Fear is an indicator that something bad might happen. It motivates us to protect ourselves.
- Boredom is an indicator that we may need a challenge so we can continue to learn and grow. It motivates to seek those challenges.
- Loneliness is an indicator that we are not fulfilling a basic human need for relatedness. All human beings have a basic need to care about others and be cared about.
- Guilt is an indicator that we may have been unfair to someone else. It motivates us to evaluate our actions and make things fair, or to forgive ourselves for making a mistake.
- Inadequacy is an indicator that we may not be fulfilling our basic need for contribution or for competence. It can motivate us toward more constructive action for ourselves and for our community.
- Stress is an indicator that we may be taking on too much. It can motivate us to slow down and/or organize our efforts.
- Shame deserves a special mention. We are biologically predisposed to feel shame as a means for social survival. Humans have been on the planet for about 2 million years. Over 99.99% percent of that time we were hunter-gatherers searching for food in groups of 20-30 people. If we were outcast from our group it was essentially a death sentence. Shame is an indicator that our actions or thoughts may not be aligned with those of our group. It motivates us to stay inline with group expectations so we can survive.
Knowing there’s a positive purpose for each of the emotions above can help us utilize them in a constructive way.
Step Two. Self-Compassion.
I’ve found self-compassion is incredibly helpful when dealing with negative emotions. Biologically, the heart serves as a mediator to our pre-frontal cortex. This means that good feelings in the heart can help us deal with negative feelings more rationally. There are three basic steps to self-compassion:
- Awareness that the negative emotion is occurring. Practice detachment and acceptance of the emotion rather than wrestling with it or pushing it away.
- Befriend yourself. Offer yourself support as if you were your own best friend. One of the most powerful ways to do this is through positive touch like putting your hand on your heart.
- Realize you are not alone, but rather part of the human race. The negative emotions above are part of the human story. Picture yourself joined and supported by those who might be suffering like you now, in the past and in the future. You belong.
Here’s a more complete description of the self-compassion exercise.
Step Three. Identify the Root Cause.
If identifying the root cause eludes you, hypnosis can really help with this. If you know the root cause, then proceed. One thing you can do yourself if the root cause eludes you is to sit with the emotion and intend to know where it came from. Allow the emotion to take you back to its source.
Step Four. Reality check.
Is the feeling based on accurate perceptions? Examples below:
- Anger. Did another person do something that wasn’t fair?
- Sadness. is the person or thing really lost?
- Fear. Is there really something bad going to happen, or is it just a suspicion? How do you know?
- Boredom. Are you not challenged enough or just restless?
- Loneliness. Are you able to care about others or feel cared about? To what extent do you feel part of something greater?
- Guilt. Did you do something unfair to another person?
- Inadequacy. This is actually a form of fear. Do you need to do something differently or are your standards too high?
- Stress. Do you really have too much to do? Can you chunk down your goals into manageable tasks?
- Shame. Shame is a complex emotion. Part of it is fear that we don’t belong. Is this true? Is it safe to express yourself in your group? If it’s not, is it necessary to condemn yourself, just because others don’t get you?
Get curious about what is actually going on. Our minds operate on a “better safe than sorry” basis. They’re like velcro for the negative and teflon for the positive. Of course, negative things do happen, but our minds will often assume the negative just in case.
Step 5. Take a Satisfying Action.
- Anger. Take an action that makes things more fair. Contribute to a worthy cause. If you are powerless to make things more fair in your circumstances, make sure you fully acknowledge the suffering that was caused so you can let it go. Go to self-compassion as needed.
- Sadness. If you lost someone or something valuable ask yourself what you can do to replace what that person or thing did for you? I don’t mean this in a cynical way. However, if your tennis partner has moved away it might be a good idea to find a new tennis partner rather than continue to feel bad about missing one. People are often irreplaceable, but you can look rationally at what they gave you and find ways to meet those needs in new ways while also honoring the person you miss.
- Fear. Take steps to mitigate any possible damage. For example, I discovered there’s a mean dog in my neighborhood a few months ago. Now I carry mace and an air horn when I go by that house. Sometimes I just avoid the house altogether. Allow time to do your research. Find your best solution.
- Boredom. We all need to learn and grow through challenge. You might need to go out and meet new people and try new activities, which can invoke fear (above). You might need to do your old activities in a different way, just to change things up. You might need to do your tasks in a way that suits your style a little better. You might need to quit and do something completely new. Experiment.
- Loneliness. Pursue meaningful relationships with others. Find activities with like-minded people.
- Guilt. If you did do something unfair to another person, consider if it’s safe to make an apology and/or reparations. Make things right. Self-compassion can be helpful here as well. If the other person is not available or safe to approach, it may be helpful to fully acknowledge how you hurt them, and how your actions hurt you and violated your own values so you can let it go.
- Inadequacy. If you need to improve at something you can practice, get a mentor or coach, pursue training. Often inadequacy on a specific pursuit is globalized as shame, as if there’s something fundamentally wrong with you. See “Shame” about this.
- Stress. I’ve found the GROW coaching structure to be an excellent one when I’m feeling like there’s too much to do. Also, breaking down our larger goals into manageable SMART goals (simple, manageable, attainable, relevant, time bound) can be very helpful.
- Shame. The only way shame is helpful, is to keep you safe in your social group. That’s it. Shame is a primitive brain response. Sometimes, as children, it’s all we’re capable of, and then those shame feelings persist into adulthood. I’ve found hypnosis to be an incredibly helpful tool for finding the root cause and resolving shame, so you don’t have to feel it anymore. Shame often feels very painful, so once you recognize it applying self-compassion can be very helpful. Once you’re able to think about it rationally, you can ask yourself, “Am I safe to be _____, or do_____ in this group?” If not, then you can keep it to yourself. That’s rational. If you are safe, then do as you please.” Here’s more help for understanding the shame response.
Because they point toward important needs that can lead to satisfying results, all negative feelings are good when they’re based on accurate perceptions.
Most of the above writing is based on Cal Banyan’s book The Secret Language of Feelings. I added the self-compassion material in because I have found it consistently helpful for my students and in my own practice. I also added the shame emotion because people run into it so often and wonder what to do with it. Again, I’ve found self-compassion to be an effective antidote.
Hello John, the above sounds very fine – but how does one muster the rationale, if one is caught in one of them?
Hi Kenneth. Great question. If you’re caught in an emotion and can’t muster a rationale, self-compassion can create a bridge between being caught up and becoming able to think about it rationally. I just published an article on self-compassion.