Handling Negative Emotions
Recently, Mel told me about his struggle with anger and resentment towards his supervisor. He was passed over for a promised promotion. The whole business soured him towards his job. Frequently, he finds himself filled with irritation when he meets with his boss. He wasn’t sure what to do.
“At this point, I know that talking to him about my feelings will be counterproductive. I want to let go of my anger—but I just can’t!”. He was frustrated with himself. He felt immature and childish.
This is a common adult experience. It’s easy to find oneself feeling offended, disappointed, or hurt because of others. It can be a something small or large. Our feelings can be triggered by contact with the person in question. But even thoughts can set off a volcanic reaction. And then, we find ourselves “stewing” over the offensive incident. This process can ruin a night’s sleep. We’re like a dog chasing its tail.
I had to give someone bad news the other day. I was upset. I felt sad and powerless. I woke up at 3:00 a.m. “stewing” about the upcoming conversation. I just couldn’t fall back asleep. I was dreading having to tell him about the unpleasant turn of events. I couldn’t stop myself from thinking about the whole business.
This is the nature of our minds.
We want to rid ourselves of negative feelings, even if they seem completely justified by the circumstances. Negative thoughts cause us distress. Think about something unpleasant and notice your muscles tighten, your heart beating faster, and your breath becoming shallow. These emotions can be uncomfortable. We want to be free of them.
So, we “tell” ourselves to stop thinking about the negative circumstance. Sadly, that doesn’t work very well. We can’t control our minds. Our thoughts are like a monkey swinging from branch to branch, rarely slowing down. If we are preoccupied with something, our minds will quickly return to the same branch. The more we try to stop thinking about something, the more our minds return to that subject. It’s frustrating!
We want to “let go” of our anger or disappointment. We want our minds to move on. But interestingly, we can’t really let go of anything either, any more than we can stop thinking about an unpleasant encounter. Adults who have experienced trauma want to “forget about” what happened, let go of their anger and sadness, and “move on”. If only it was so easy!
Five things you can do when you have unpleasant feelings and negative emotions:
- Acknowledge your feelings. Make note of what you are experiencing. My friend Mel simply labels his experience. “I’m feeling angry at my boss”.
- Accept your emotions. By acknowledging your experience, it’s possible to accept your feelings without judging them as good or bad. They simply are what you are feeling.
- Adopt a neutral attitude towards your state of mind. Mel can choose to see his anger as “bad”, “childish”, or “justified” or he can simply adopt a neutral approach to these emotions.
- Decide how you want to handle these thoughts and feelings. Maybe Mel does want to talk to his supervisor or maybe he decides not to. But what he wants to do about his experience is in his control.
- Let it be. Letting something be is different than trying to let it go. Negative emotions can be like a fire. If you don’t put any fuel on the fire, it will eventually burn out. Trying to put it out, however, adds fuel to the flame. Just leave it alone, and it will find it’s natural resting place. In time, it will dissipate and your attention will move on to something else.