4 Steps To Accept and Overcome Your Negative Emotions
Melissa Broder is known for her hilariously melancholic tweets. She shares things like “waking up today was a disappointment” or "I don’t feel well but I never have.” She is also brutally honest about her imperfections - “my serotonin receptors got canceled” or “you’re damn right I lack self-confidence.” Her account is immensely popular now with 809,000 people following her daily inner life.
It’s interesting how her expression of sadness and grey emotions in between, strikes a nerve in this modern culture of perfectly curated lives of status and happiness.
The growing rates of depression and anxiety in the western world contradict this illusion. Clearly, there is something more to this inconsistency.
Our culture tasks us to pursue happiness, but how happy are we truly in the pursuit?
The fact of the matter is, we are addicted to emotional perfectionism - i.e. to be radiating with constant positivity and happiness.
However, desiring happiness is not the real issue.
Our issue lies in ONLY wanting positive emotions while ignoring the negative ones.
Philosopher Alan Watts talked about a concept called "The Backwards Law” which is the idea that the more we try, the less we will succeed. This means that the opposite is also true - the less we try to force things, the more we will succeed.
There is a simple yet profound lesson in this law:
It is the constant pursuit of happiness that causes more unhappiness, while the acceptance of negative emotions itself can create more positive emotions.
You see, negative emotions are not bad and therefore does not harm us. It is rather our resistance to accepting them that does.
"Whatever You Fight, You Strengthen, and What You Resist, Persists" – Eckhart Tolle
What if we stop fighting our inevitable negative feelings and instead focus on learning how to process them in a healthy way?
If you often find yourself getting stuck with negative emotions, I firstly invite you to surrender this perpetual need to be emotionally perfect and instead practice acceptance.
Because it is when we put down our armour and realise that all emotions are perfectly okay, we begin the true healing journey.
If you are wondering, "how exactly do I accept them?”, then follow these 4 steps to guide yourself through the journey of negative emotions.
1. Tune Into Your Body
Have you angrily yelled at your mother or partner, only to realise how unnecessary it was in hindsight?
We’ve all overreacted to our negative emotions before. Usually, that’s our effort to emotionally survive that challenging moment but most times, we often regret it.
We tend to overreact because our minds IDENTIFY and BECOME the emotions, instead of seeing them as temporary passing events, like clouds in the sky.
As the mind begins to interpret the situation, there is a moment before the mind BECOMES angry and you find yourself yelling.
It is our job to gain control over this precious moment.
When you feel a difficult emotion arising, instead of immediately diving into it, take a moment to pause and tune into your body (detailed steps are in image below).
When we shift our focus to our body, we are essentially shifting the gears within our brains - moving the attention from the emotional centre of our brain (limbic system) to the frontal lobe - this is the thinking, controlling part of the brain.
We are 'tricking' our brain to NOT engage with the automatic emotional reaction by giving it a new job - "Hey, what's going on in the body? Let's go have a look there."
2. Identifying Emotions - Let’s Play Charades
The focus on bodily sensations should have helped to calm any immediate eruption of emotions.
It is now time to identify your emotions.
Verbal identification is the first step in acknowledging and therefore the healing process of our negative emotions. We need to know what they are to precisely interpret what we need because an incorrect diagnosis will yield an incorrect ’treatment’ plan. For example, if our diagnosis was stress, we will treat it differently than if the diagnosis was sadness.
But first things first: emotional vocabulary.
When I began this journey of emotional acceptance, my emotional vocabulary was almost non-existent.
I remember during a delicate moment with an ex-partner, he asked how I was feeling.
“I don’t know,” I responded, even though I knew I felt something and WANTED to share. I just sat there in front of him, frozen and unable to put my feelings into words.
One of the reasons behind my frequent shutdown was because I didn’t know HOW to translate my emotions into words. If you (or your partner) also struggle with this, I highly recommend using this wheel of emotions.
American psychologists Dr. Plutchik developed this wheel to help us navigate through the complex maze of human emotions. Did you know that we can experience 34,000 distinguishable emotions? No wonder it feels difficult to express our emotions!
Using this wheel, try your best to name your emotions. Come up with words or phrases to best describe how you are feeling, like playing charades. Bring in the observations you've made on your physical sensations here too. There is no right or wrong answer, rather the value lies in the investigation and assessment.
For example, yesterday when I was feeling "off", I took a moment and made the following physical observations:
"I feel tightness around my throat and a bit of heaviness on my shoulders."
Then remembering the wheel, my chain of thoughts looked like this:
"I feel a bit overwhelmed, I'm not sure exactly how I'm feeling.
Disappointment.. I think. In myself. And I also feel embarrassed.
Maybe even guilty and ashamed."
(All emotions were from the blue section)
3. Expressing Emotions:
A) Talk it out:
It is therapeutic to express your feelings with someone that you trust - a friend, partner, parents or a support person.
What's important is to talk to a person who is willing to listen to you without making any evaluations or wanting to ‘fix’ your feelings.
If you simply want to be heard, gently yet clearly let this person know:
"Hey, can I share something with you?
I’m struggling with some things and really need to get it out.”
“I always love your advice but is it okay if I just vent things out with you today?”
B) Write It Out:
Writing has been shown to help tremendously with emotional processing. For James Pennebaker, a professor from the University of Texas, writing saved his life and marriage. His personal experience sparked a 40 year journey of research on the links between writing and emotional processing. He found that those who write about emotionally difficult situations experienced positive improvements in their physical and mental well-being.
Pennebaker’s Writing Guidance:
Set a timer for 20 minutes.
Begin writing about any emotional experiences that you remember - from yesterday, last month or year.
At the end, do whatever you want to do with it: delete it, burn it, or just leave it. It doesn’t matter - the point is that your thoughts are out of you.
Repeat for a few days.
There is no right and wrong - simply allow your mind to go to wherever it wants to go to. Write for yourself - don’t worry about your spelling, punctuation, grammar or how it is flowing.
If you are new to writing and are struggling, you can start by saying exactly that: “I’m new to this. This feels weird. I don’t know what to write.”
I recommend doing this every day but if you are new to writing, I recommend doing it when you are going through a particularly tough time or a big transition.
4. Practicing Self-Compassion
Self-compassion can reduce the intensity of negative emotions as it reminds us of the normality of these experiences. And more importantly that we are not alone in our feelings of pain.
The reduction in intensity is extremely helpful because it creates a healthy and safe space for mindful observations to occur.
Dr. Kirstin Neff, a pioneering researcher and author in Self-Compassion suggests ways we can practice it with our negative emotions.
A) Self-Kindness: Recognising that imperfections and mistakes are a normal part of human life.
How to practice: Talk to yourself in the same light in how you would talk to your best friend going through a similar situation. What would you say to them? How would you comfort them?
Tip: Use this as a topic for a writing exercise: write about a recent negative experience and follow it up with how this conversation with your best friend would look like.
B) Common Humanity: Recognising that difficult challenges are part of shared human experience.
How To Practice: How would you remind your best friend that they are not alone in experiencing negative emotions? What would you say to them to remind them that it is perfectly normal to experience negative emotions?
C) Mindfulness: The ability to objectively observe emotions without ignoring or exaggerating them.
How To Practice: Mindfully observe your emotions as if you're doing a scientific experiment and making objective observations without judgment. You may observe things like, “The heat is rising” but you wouldn’t be writing “the heat is rising - this is terrible!”
We often take emotions very personally but mindfulness helps us to view them as temporary events.
Psychologist, Elisha Goldstein, had a great tip for being mindful of our negative emotions. She suggests that it can be helpful to tell ourselves:
“While this is a temporary feeling, it is here right now, how can I care for it? What do I need?"
Mindful observation leads to mindfulness acceptance, where you can embrace your emotions simply as they are.
“Muddy water is best cleared by leaving it alone” - Alan Watts
Acceptance is the simple acknowledgment of things as they are - It is what it is.
What most of us are blind to is that it is our RESISTANCE to negative experiences that are causing our internal pain and suffering. It may provide temporary relief but it does not end the pain.
It is our willingness to accept and embrace our negative emotions as they are, without trying to change them, that ultimately allows us to move beyond the negativity.
It is a twisted paradox that we must all understand - it is only when we turn towards and accept the negative emotions as they are that we find relief from them.
Next time, sit back and let the negative emotion pass to accept and move beyond it.
Research & Further Reading:
1. Tune Into Your Body:
"How Tuning In to Your Body Can Make You More Resilient" By Linda Graham on Greater Good Magazine.
When you inhale, you are activating the sympathetic nervous system, while exhalation activates the parasympathetic system. When you deepen each breath, you are strengthening the power of your natural breathing cycles of energising and relaxing you.
A deep sigh is a natural way for your body to release tension. It does this by resetting your nervous system. Studies have shown that deep sighs help the autonomic nervous system to return from its over-activated state to a more balanced state.
Studies have shown that a warm physical touch activates the release of oxytocin, which creates pleasant feelings in the body.
Studies have shown that placing our hands over our hearts while gently breathing, can calm our mind and body.
2. Identification of Emotions: