Many people believe they need to stuff down or change their feelings in order to feel good, or to be a good human. I can certainly relate to this way of thinking; we’re pretty much brought up this way! As kids we’re taught that being angry or upset is bad, while being quiet, agreeable, and keeping a “stiff upper lip” makes us much more likeable as humans.
It makes sense that this led us to think that negative emotions were “wrong” and needed to be fixed. People with anger issues, for example, are often under the impression that they need to deal with their anger, instead of allowing their anger to “be” and dealing with their response to that anger. People feeling sad sometimes believe that they just need to think more positive thoughts, which can be helpful (to an extent, as long as we’re reaching for thoughts we actually believe), but not if it’s at the expense of looking at the emotion.
The fact is, all emotions (and feelings, note that I’m using these terms interchangeably) are normal. We cannot choose our feelings directly, but they are an important feedback mechanism. They can give us information about who we are, what we value, and how we can change. We don’t need to repress negative emotions, we need to look at them. The best part is, when we’re in the process of observing an emotion, we’re not ruled by it, and we’re free to choose our response to the situation.
In the words of Austrian neurologist, psychiatrist, and Holocaust survivor, Viktor Frankl, “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”
In our society it’s fairly common for us to try to repress our emotions in many different ways. Some of us use TV, cigarettes, or video games, while others binge eat, drink, gossip or stay busy. The list goes on, but it’s all a coping mechanism to avoid feeling. Sometimes we tell ourselves this is our way of “having fun”, but when we look more closely and pay attention to how we feel with non-judgemental curiosity, we see that it’s not actually “fun”. It’s an avoidance of having to feel.
Of course, avoidance is better than acting out on emotions such as anger by yelling or standover tactics, instead of feeling what the anger might be covering (often hurt or shame). But neither option – repressing or discharging it onto others – is ideal.
It’s interesting to know that most of the time we are not even conscious that we are practising avoidance; it’s just happening. But by choosing to pay more attention to how we feel this slowly starts to change. Thoughts, feelings and behaviours become more conscious.
Feelings as Feedback
A good way to deal with negative feelings is to track them back to their source, which can be found in what you’re thinking. You can’t change how you feel, but you can change how you think; thinking is about where your focus lies, feeling is the result of that focus.
For example, you might feel really hateful to someone who you feel is “fake”. That may tell you that you really value authenticity. You might then decide not to dwell on that thought, because they are who they are and that’s none of your business, and put your attention elsewhere. Note that changing what you focus on (i.e. how you think) is quite different to trying to change how you feel.
Sometimes it’s hard to locate a related thought, and in these instances other practises are helpful. You can use journaling to help you focus on becoming more emotionally granular; i.e. looking at how you really feel, and what’s really bothering you, rather than using blanket terms like “I’m sad”. Journaling is not about dwelling, it’s about exploring.
Another powerful practise is to truly observe the feeling as though it’s a tangible “thing”. See if you can give it colour, shape and texture. The reason why this practise is helpful is because you’ve no longer been overtaken by the emotion, you’ve quickly shifted to the one observing the emotion. Sometimes you’ll find that you’ll get some profound insights about yourself, sometimes not. Don’t put any expectations on this practise apart from expecting it to create space between you and the emotion.
Negative Feelings don’t control you
Your feelings do not have to determine your actions, they come from a completely different part of the brain. Instead of worrying or lashing out when you have negative emotions, go into sleuth mode. How do I feel? What is this feeling telling me? Is there an associated thought? And finally, how do I want to behave? Don’t shame yourself for having a negative feeling, it’s a completely normal part of life.
Since many of us have habitually acted on our emotions for a long period of time, this can take a bit of diligence at first, but over time it will get easier. The way to change the brain is through repetition: eventually you will have created a new habit to pause and assess your own emotions, realising they provide an opportunity to find out more about ourselves.
Feel the feeling, look at it with curiosity not judgement, and keep moving forward.
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