Negative emotions are part of life—yet most of us try to bottle them up or shut them out. We label our emotions and wish them away. We judge ourselves for feeling negative and get caught up in secondary negative emotions as a result. Or we react to our emotions and engage in behaviors that don’t serve us well. Often, we do both.
We can also do the same to others. I know that for a long time, I would get quite visibly upset when my children were negative. I would force them to be happy, not realizing that I was actually making them as uncomfortable with negative emotions as I was myself. And then I would feel guilty about being upset, which invariably would lead to a downward spiral of feeling bad about myself. Many of us know this vicious cycle well.
The reality is that the way we feel about our emotions can have a profound impact on our reactions to them. When we label and judge our emotions, we unconsciously engage the sympathetic nervous system and see the negativity as threatening to us. We then either avoid the emotions altogether—the flight response—or we recruit the “seeking system” of the brain from a place of fear. This may mean distracting ourselves, engaging in addictive behaviors, or even taking part in compulsive activities.
In her book Emotional Agility, psychologist Susan David says that when we’re present with all our emotions and can navigate them with curiosity and compassion, we’re able to respond in ways that are aligned with our highest values. We’re able to engage the seeking system toward our true aspirations for our lives.
If you find that your negative emotions can sometimes take on a life of their own, here’s a two-pronged approach to show up with the best of yourself.
Calm the Emotion
Suppressing emotions doesn’t work. Why? Because emotions are messengers from our inner world. When we’re feeling negative, they are reminding us that something is wrong and that it needs our immediate attention. This doesn’t mean that our inner world is necessarily correct—many of its fears are remnants of the past, or exaggerated predications of the future. But, like an upset child, it is crying out in fear, and ignoring it or getting caught up in its emotional outcry is not going to work.
Here’s what will: Feel the emotion in your body wherever you can sense it the most. It could be tightness in your shoulders, a clenched jaw, an aching heart, or a general unease. You may even want to place your hand on that spot in love and understanding, as touch releases oxytocin and can calm you down. As you do so, name the emotion as if it were a visitor. Say, “Frustration is here,” instead of, “I’m frustrated.” This not only sends a message to your inner world that it’s been heard, but it also creates distance from the emotion so you don’t get embroiled in it.
Engage Your Reason
Often it takes less than a minute to take the edge off of your emotion. This is ample time for your rational brain to catch up, because it’s slower than the emotional brain. It is also lazier because it takes up a lot of mental energy and gets easily drained out. You can make it easier for the rational brain to take responsibility for your actions by reflecting on your core values. What is it that you hold dear? How do you want to live your life? And what is one action—however small—that you can take right now that’s aligned with your values? If you’ve thought about the action in advance, you make it even easier for yourself to show up in ways that make you proud.
There’s no denying our emotions. By suppressing them, we may think we’re making rational choices, but as 18th-century philosopher David Hume said, “Reason is slave to passion.” It’s only when we listen in with compassion that we can respond from a place of courage and integrity.