Our emotions are important signals. But we definitely prefer to listen to some feelings more than others. Happiness, fulfilment, joy - we greet these emotions with open ears. They’re the kinds of feelings that we want to spend time with and interrogate.
“I’m happy! What is it that’s making me happy? How can I feel this emotion more?”
Negative emotions though? We don’t like them so much. But these feelings are giving us equally important information – signals we should act on.
The problem is that many of us react very differently when confronted by things like anger, guilt, anxiety, and grief. We either run away from these feelings completely, or we go to the other extreme and wallow in them, lost in our pain.
As we enter a new year, I think it might be a good time to re-evaluate our relationship with negative emotions – and press the reset. (In fact, I’m devoting a new season of my podcast The Happiness Lab to this very idea… be sure to give it a listen.)
There are a ton of great strategies to help you to deal with icky emotions – the flash of anger you feel when someone cuts in front of you in a parking lot; or the debilitating sorrow you endure when a loved one dies. But you can only start to adopt those strategies once you listen to what your emotions are trying to say.
Author and Harvard Medical School psychologist Susan David had her own experience of this in childhood. The death of her father was incredibly painful and disorientating – at the time, she felt the need to bottle up the hurt and press on.
“There's a body of research showing that when we push aside these difficult emotions, there's actually an amplification effect,” she warns.
In Susan’s case, her suppressed grief caused her to adopt some harmful eating behaviors. And it was only when a teacher asked her to keep a diary of her innermost thoughts that she found some relief.
“It was counter to what I was being told in society, which is just get on with it and just be positive. And instead, what I was doing [in the diary] was facing into these really difficult emotions and experiences.”
In Susan’s book on the subject, Emotional Agility, she offers an arresting analogy. She says that we are like sea captains, trying to navigate our ships around the rocky shores of life. Each of us has an emotional lighthouse trying to warn us about problems ahead – but foolishly we don’t heed the signal.
“Emotions are signalling things that are important. Our emotions might be signalling that this job isn't going as wonderfully as you wanted, or your relationship is actually not working out. And yet you keep on either avoiding the emotions or not connecting with them effectively.”
Susan says our weird relationship with negative emotions means we're especially bad at even naming them. When we have a tough day we’ll often just describe ourselves as being “stressed” without actually thinking more carefully about which emotions we’re really experiencing.
We could be burned out, frustrated, humiliated or feel misunderstood.
“If you label your experience as stress, it's a very diffuse. If we think about it, there is a world of difference between stress and disappointment.”
So that’s the first step - really categorizing your feelings and exploring what they are signalling. If you feel stressed at worked – the answer maybe to take vacation time, or seek changes to your workload, or have a tough conversation with your boss about boundaries. If you are humiliated or disappointed – you may need to find a new work environment altogether.
Susan says a second important step is to realize that “our emotions are data, not directives”.
“We own our emotions. They don't own us. And so another skill that becomes really important in helping us to not push aside the difficult emotions, not brood on them, but develop healthy space with our emotions is if we just think about the language with which we describe them.”
We’ve all found ourselves saying: I am sad. I am angry. I am frustrated.
“All of me, 100% of me is the emotion. When you do this, there's no space for anything else. There's no space for wisdom,” says Susan. An all-consuming emotion isn’t something you can step back from and consider. And without consideration, we can’t calmly implement strategies to act on what sadness, anger or frustration are telling us to do.
So next time you feel that flare of rage try to think of yourself as “experiencing anger”, rather than saying “I am angry”. It’s a subtle reframing, but a powerful one.
No one likes to feel sad, or angry, or grief-stricken. And some of us will do anything we can to dodge these emotions. But in reality they can’t be avoided – not if you want to lead a happy existence.
So next time you feel a negative emotion – don’t push it away or let it consume you fully. Focus instead on what it is trying to tell you about your current situation.
In the coming weeks, I’ll look at some specific negative feelings, and the strategies you can use to approach discomfort in a way that will allow you to make positives change and move back towards happiness.
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