In my recent post, Feelings Drive Actions, I briefly mentioned negative emotions. Simply put, these are all the feelings that don’t feel good–the “feel-bads,” as a friend of mine used to call them. Shame, discouragement, frustration, restlessness, boredom, anger, sadness, and hatred are all feelings that fall into this category. Although I don’t believe that negative emotion can inspire positive action, we all feel negative emotion. It is part of the human experience. And I think it is supposed to be. In fact, I think it is good to experience negative emotion. Without it, we wouldn’t know how good the good is when we feel it.
So, what exactly is negative emotion? What causes it? We already discussed that our thoughts create our feelings. So negative emotion is created by our thoughts, whether conscious or unconscious. But what physically is happening is that when we have a thought, positive or negative, our brain actually triggers a release of hormone into our body. As that chemical goes through our body, we feel it as an emotion. Some of these hormones create good feelings, while others create feelings we don’t like. But that’s all it is. A chemical causing a vibration in our body. It flows through, and then it leaves. I like to think that positive emotions are our brain’s way of trying to reinforce positive thinking. It says, “That thought was great! Here is a good feeling to go with it. Enjoy!” And at the same time, when we have thoughts that create negative emotions, our brain releases chemicals that don’t feel good, trying to lead us away from those thoughts. It is simply doing its job—trying to help us!
As I said, negative emotion doesn’t inspire positive action. And it doesn’t feel good. So we don’t want to feel it a lot. But what about when we do? What then? Most people, when they experience negative emotion, will either resist it, run from it, or compound it.
Resisting negative emotion is fighting against it—trying to will it away. Being stronger than it. But what happens when we do this is that our brain thinks we didn’t get the message, so it sends a louder one. Or it will wait and try again later. For me, this results in a blow-up! You know, when you yell at your kid over something small, and then apologize, saying, “It really wasn’t even about what you did. It was about this other emotion that has been building up inside me.” You know what I’m talking about, right?
The second common way for dealing with negative emotion is running from it, or distracting ourselves from it. I coached a volleyball player once who would always smile when the team was getting yelled at. She later explained that whenever she felt uncomfortable, she would instantly smile to try to distract herself from it. She had developed this mechanism to the point that it was automatic. Some coping mechanisms can be good, but many cause us further harm. For me, if I am feeling restless, I often want to eat something, and it’s not typically something healthy. Overeating is a common distraction from negative emotion, and not a productive way to deal with it. Spending money, gambling, and substance abuse are all distraction mechanisms for negative emotion.
The third thing we often do when experiencing negative emotion is compound it. What I mean by this is that we add another layer or layers of negative emotion to the one we are currently feeling by continuing in negative thinking. Let’s use a body example. Let’s say that you have been working hard to change your feelings about your body by thinking positive thoughts. But today, when you looked in the mirror, you had the thought, “I looked so much better before I had my baby.” That thought triggered the negative emotion of self-pity. When you realized the feeling you were having and the thought that had created it, you then thought, “I am never going to get to a place of loving my body!” Added negative emotion: hopelessness. And while you’re at it, you think, “I’m so awful, letting myself feel this way when I have so much I should be happy about.” You’ve now completed the negative emotion trifecta with your go-to: GUILT.
May I suggest another way to deal with negative emotion? Process it. What this means is allow yourself to just feel it until it passes. This is not always easy to do, and I am still new at this. But I can say that this is such a better way to deal with it than any of the three common ways mentioned above.
Let me give an example of my own to show the steps of processing emotion. Over Christmas break, I started worrying about all the things that I needed to do. There were parties coming up, food to prepare, a house that needed to be cleaned, and of course, all the kids were home, doing what kids do: making more messes. We hadn’t put away all the new Christmas gifts yet, and of course the Christmas decorations were still up, and I was starting to look at it all as clutter. I started having some negative thoughts about it all, and OVERWHELM was triggered! (This is my favorite negative emotion, by the way.) Instead of trying to push it back, run from it, or compound it, I instead just went to my bedroom, laid down, and felt it. STEP 1: First, I named the emotion. I said to myself, “This is overwhelm.” (Sometimes, simply recognizing and naming the emotion can be tough.) STEP 2: Then I gave myself permission to feel it. I thought, “It’s okay to feel overwhelm right now. Feel it for as long as you would like. But know that when you are ready to move on, you can.” STEP3: I paid attention to how it felt. I noticed that I felt it in my chest, kind of a tightening feeling. It made me feel a little short of breath. As I noticed how it felt, and continued to tell myself that it was overwhelm, it started to subside a bit. It also helped me at this point to remember that negative emotion is just a chemical vibration in the body, and that it cannot really hurt me. STEP 4: Once the feeling had calmed, I decided that I didn’t want to feel it anymore, and I chose a thought that helped create a new feeling. “My kids have really been so fun over this break. I sure am lucky to have them!” New feeling: Gratitude. I was then able to wipe away my tears, come back out of my room, and move on with my day. By processing the emotion, my brain knew that I got the message. I was able to move past it without making myself feel even worse, or lashing out at people around me. Success!
So here are your steps again for processing negative emotion:
Step 1: Name the emotion.
Step 2: Give yourself permission to feel it for as long as you need.
Step 3: Pay attention to how it feels. Where do you feel it? (You also may want to remind yourself that it is just a chemical in your body and it cannot hurt you.)
Step 4: When you are finished feeling it, choose a new thought and move forward.
This Project of loving our bodies will not always be easy. It will have its ups and downs. And during the downs, there will be some negative emotions. Even the most positive people in the world will experience negative emotion from time to time. We are SUPPOSED to. But I hope we will use the tool of processing negative emotion as often as we need, and that as we get better at it we will need it less often.
Love your body, and your body will love you. ♥