How to Deal with Strong Negative Emotions (Part 1)
I have experienced my share of strong emotions throughout my life ranging from delirious elation to down-in-the-dumps misery. For a long time, I would get swept up in my emotions and truly believed there was no other way to deal with them than to express them. If I was annoyed with my mom, she had to know. If I was angry with my husband, he needed to see it so he could fix his erroneous ways. Similarly, if I was having a bad day, I automatically assumed I had to change something about my current circumstances to change my emotions. This is a common assumption—that our internal emotional life is the result of our external situation and if we just transformed the situation, it would transform our internal life. Little did I know that it was the reverse: that in order to change the outward situation, we must first change our internal situation.
So how then do we deal with strong emotions, particularly negative ones, if the most responsible thing isn’t to take them out on others or have them be the driving force to change our circumstances? There are two primary ways people deal with strong emotions they don’t want to feel and I want to offer up a third way. The first way is to, as I have already been discussing and the way I was accustomed to, express them by taking them out on other people and/or using those strong emotions to change my situation. We all know of people (we may even be these people) who are constantly quitting jobs or leaving partners because they convince themselves there’s a better job, partner or situation out there for them. There very well might be but what they do not realize is those right jobs and partners only come into our lives when we encounter them organically and from a place of contentment. The other way people deal with strong emotions is by repressing and avoiding them. They do this by using a distraction. That distraction may be technology, substances, movies, books, anything and everything can be used to distract us from the difficulty of actually dealing with strong emotions.
The third and healthiest way I propose is this: do not judge yourself for having emotions, observe them neutrally and then just allow yourself to experience them fully, on your own, in complete safety. Let yourself feel the full affect of it and when you do this, it never lasts very long. In fact, the lifespan of strong negative emotions is much shorter when we allow ourselves to feel them rather than suppress or judge ourselves for having them. Believe me, you will come out of it and when you do is when you should make life-altering decisions, not when you’re in the thick of it. As a girlfriend once shared with me many years ago, “never break up with someone in the middle of a fight.”
The best example of how to do this to ourselves is how I practice this with my toddler, which funnily enough, many psychologists compare our emotional selves to. Toddlers are incredibly volatile and irrational beings. There is no way to control their emotional lives. In fact, the best way to control their emotional lives is to do the exact opposite of control. To make them stop feeling what they’re feeling only makes matters worse. When we provide a generous space for them to express their irrational emotions however, it’s amazing how quickly their storm passes. Sometimes, I’ll even hold my kid as he wails and repeat to him, “you can cry as long as you need to. I know this is tough on you.” Other times, if he’s too angry to be held, I’ll remain in the same room and look at him with acceptance and compassion as he gets his emotions out of his system.
This is exactly how we can treat ourselves in the midst of strong negative emotions—treat ourselves like an unconditionally loving parent to a toddler. One of the most powerful experiences I had was after I graduated from college and couldn’t find a job. I was applying for tons of jobs but none of them were getting back to me. My bills and loans were piling up and I couldn’t even sleep through the night because my anxiety was so great. On one of those sleepless nights, I got out of bed and on my knees and just allowed myself to feel the anxiety and worry of it all. I had been avoiding this because I assumed that the pain would be insufferable. Don’t get me wrong, the feelings were intense…but I chose not to escape them this time. As I wept and rocked on my knees, I felt this warm embrace cover my entire body and I felt like a baby held in the arms of a mother. I felt so safe—safe to cry, safe to worry, safe to say how scared I was. I don’t remember how long this moment lasted but I instinctively knew when I was done. I came out of that experience like I had just released a massive weight. I went back into my job search feeling like I was walking on clouds. And of course, the very next day, I got my dream first job out of college.
Don’t get swept up by your emotions. Don’t let them misdirect your life or cause you to treat your loved ones poorly. At the same time, don’t judge yourself for having them. Emotions—all kinds—are simply a part of our human existence. The best way to deal with them is to just allow yourself to feel them in a safe place. And when you do that, they usually make their way in and through your body. As the saying goes, “the only way out is through.”
One important question you may now be wondering is how then we are to engage those who we are angry/annoyed/hurt by if the solution isn’t to blame them for our negative emotions or have them be the recipients of them. I’ll address this on next week’s post. Until then, my friends.