Stop Fighting Negative Emotions - Here Is What To Do Instead
Modern life is a never-ending emotional rollercoaster. The pressure to succeed in life with a great job, 6-pack abs, a thriving social life and an amazing partner, can induce a volatile combination of pressure and stress.
We are conditioned to chase after these symbols of status and happiness. And when we do, we revel in it.
But, what about when we don’t? How do you manage through that?
What if you are feeling angry, sad or just unhappy for no reason whatsoever?
What if you just want to complain and be grumpy?
Most of us struggle with this because growing up, we have been taught to suppress such negative feelings. This is because in western societies, we are addicted to a skewed idea of emotional perfectionism where positivity is rewarded and negativity is frowned upon.
I’m sure you often hear: “You’re being dramatic. Suck it up. You shouldn’t feel that.”
Emotional perfectionism gave birth to a mental disease called emotional suppression where many now fear and therefore pretend to not experience any pain or negativity.
But emotional suppression, therefore emotional perfectionism is impossible.
All emotions, both positive and negative, are natural biological forces that we are meant to experience. On the other hand, emotional suppression is an unnatural process that’s to be avoided, due to its detrimental impact on our well being.
Instead, what if we surrender the need to be emotionally perfect and stop fighting these inevitable feelings?
Instead, what if we shift our focus to learn how to process, accept, and ultimately embrace our negative emotions?
By doing this, we will feel less frustration and pain in our hearts because paradoxically, it is when we stop resisting and accept our negative experiences, we begin to create positivity that we all desperately want in our lives.
Before we can begin accepting our negative emotions, we first need to understand their role. Let’s start with two core ideas about them.
Negative Emotions are Unavoidable
Tal Ben Shahar, a professor known for teaching the most popular class in Harvard’s history on Happiness, has famously explained that there are only two types of people who never experience negative emotions - psychopaths and dead people.
How many times have you experienced negative feelings and tried to avoid it, only to find out that it came back stronger?
Science tells us that we cannot avoid experiencing negative emotions because they originate from the limbic system of our brain that is NOT under conscious control and therefore, are unavoidable.
In fact, when we try to control and ignore negative emotions, its intensity increases and therefore becomes more difficult to deal with them. (#1)
Negative Emotions Aren’t ‘bad’ - They Give Us Useful Information
Negative emotion is any adverse emotion like anger, sadness, shame or cynicism.
When we talk about negative emotions, it is important to remember that these emotions aren’t “bad”. It is rather our perception of them that have made them ‘bad’, which has been created with the word ’negative’.
The truth is, emotions are neither good or bad.
Every emotion serves an evolutionary purpose for our survival and wellbeing. They are simply internal signals that grab our attention to situations that have triggered them. And because each emotion has its own action tendency, it motivates us to change our behaviors to either create less or more of certain experiences.
For example, anger moves us to get a refund for getting ripped off. Fear protects us from jumping in front of cars. Shame and guilt encourage us to call our parents more.
It is important to remember that, just because negative emotions feel unpleasant in the moment, it does not make them bad or useless.
“Negative emotions are a call to action. When you feel them, you’re supposed to do something. Positive emotions, on the other hand, are rewards for taking the proper action.” -Mark Manson
Why We Shouldn’t Ignore Our Emotions
Emotions are energy in motion that needs to be expressed. When we dismiss emotions, particularly negative ones, it can create many illnesses in the body and the mind (#2), causing a myriad of health issues.
Have you ever felt a sense of tightness in your chest when you felt like you couldn’t express your feelings? This is due to the rise in cortisol level in your body:
"Studies show that holding in feelings has a correlation to high cortisol—the hormone released in response to stress—and that cortisol leads to lower immunity and toxic thinking patterns. Over time, untreated or unrecognised stress can lead to an increased risk of diabetes (#3), problems with memory (#4), aggression (#5), anxiety, and depression.”
Because emotional suppression has a correlation to higher stress levels, it is also not beneficial for your heart.
A similar study (#6) conducted by psychologists from Harvard School of Public Health and the University of Rochester have found:
"Suppressing emotions may increase the risk of dying from heart disease and certain forms of cancer. This confirms earlier studies that have linked negative emotions like anger, anxiety, and depression to the development of heart disease."
The researchers have explained that health risks seem to increase when people do not have a way or are not able to express or act on their feelings.
Why We Should Instead Focus On Accepting Our Negative Emotions
As a coach and a person with a habit of bottling up negative emotions, I get it: listening, feeling or even the thought of showing our negative emotions to others is terrifying. We want to be perceived as in control and level headed.
I learned that it is a challenging process to go from believing that negative emotions are ‘bad’ to allowing yourself to fully express them in a healthy and respectable manner.
If you have spent most of your life in emotional avoidance, I want you to know that it is perfectly normal for you to experience discomfort as you begin the journey of truly relieving your negative emotions.
When clients come to me with this challenge, I guide them through this journey with a focus on acceptance.
What does this look like?
When you find yourself experiencing feelings of anger, worry, sadness, and so forth, focus on simply allowing your feelings to occur. Give yourself the space to experience the emotions, without judging or trying to change them to positive ones.
Psychologists call this practice ‘habitual acceptance’(#7) and have found that those who accepted their emotions without judgment or any intention to change them experienced fewer negative emotions and were able to cope with their stress more successfully.
The positive impact was due to their ability to accept the emotions that were triggered by a negative situation, rather than the situation itself.
Just like the clouds in the sky, let your feelings move and continue on. While you sit back and watch them drift past you, you can remind yourself:
Emotions are neither good or bad - they are natural biological forces.
All emotions are welcome.
All emotions are temporary.
There is no need to change emotions.
It is perfectly normal to experience negative emotions.
It may sound counterintuitive, but it is only when we accept our negative emotions without judgment or resistance and allow ourselves to experience them, they begin to dissipate.
It is a paradox - our negative emotions begin to disappear the moment we stop trying to make them disappear.
“Not everything that is faced can be changed. But nothing can be changed until it is faced.” - James Baldwin
Salvador once said,
“Have no fear of perfection. Because you will never reach it.”
There are two doors in life:
Door one, be a ‘perfect’ person with perfectly positive emotions and be admired.
Door two, be real with perfectly imperfect emotions and be loved.
True perfectionism is accepting our imperfections and being ourselves, in a world that is constantly trying to change us.
There is a Japanese tradition called, Kinsugi - when something breaks, they fill the crack with gold because they believe that when something is broken, it has history and therefore more beautiful.
So I say, accept, embrace and love all your cracks with all your positive, negative emotions and everything else in between. Society may call it ‘broken’ but it is where your light will shine through.
If you would like to learn more in-depth on the exact steps you can take to begin your journey of truly accepting and therefore dealing with your negative emotions, keep your eyes out on next weeks’ blog. I will share three simple yet powerful steps you can take to begin this journey.
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#1 - How To Listen To Your Emotions, Recover From Trauma, and Control Your Brain Waves with Rene Brent -The Science of Success Podcast
This podcast discusses why you can’t out-think your emotions, the relationship between trauma and our mind/body connection, how to start listening to your emotions, the power of hypnosis, and how to drop into your body to experience what you’re truly feeling with Rene Brent, a Certified Clinical and Transpersonal Hypnotherapist.
#2 Why You Need To Release Your Emotions — For The Sake Of Your Health - Mind Body Green
By Emily Roberts, M.A., LPC - a psychotherapist, parenting consultant, educational speaker, and author.
A Rice University study has found a link between emotional stress and diabetes, with roots in the brain's ability to control anxiety.
#4 "Study associates stress with impaired memory, reduced brain size in middle age" - UT Health San Antonio, Dr Sudha Seshadri, M.D., professor of neurology.
#5 "Hormones, stress and aggression--a vicious cycle"- American Psychology Associations
Rat research shows a feedback loop between stress hormones and the brain's attack center.
#6 "Emotion Suppression and Mortality Risk Over a 12-Year Follow-up" - US National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health
Emotion suppression may convey risk for earlier death, including death from cancer. Further work is needed to better understand the biopsychosocial mechanisms for this risk, as well as the nature of associations between suppression and different forms of mortality.
#7 "The psychological health benefits of accepting negative emotions and thoughts: Laboratory, diary, and longitudinal evidence." - American Psychological Association
Acceptance has been linked with greater psychological health, which we propose may be due to the role acceptance plays in negative emotional responses to stressors: acceptance helps keep individuals from reacting to—and thus exacerbating—their negative mental experiences. Over time, experiencing lower negative emotion should promote psychological health.