How do you usually respond when you experience negative emotions, such as anger, fear or pain? Do you willingly embrace them or do you get frustrated and annoyed, trying to push them away?
Does it work?
Most of us try to fight those emotions when they surface, thinking Why do I feel like this? I shouldn’t let it affect me or I should feel different/better etc. Does that ring a bell?
Chrys and I often come across situations with our clients where they feel a certain way and spend a lot of energy trying to change those emotions. And when I ask you Does it work? I’m actually asking you if you often manage to get rid of those emotions on demand, just by wanting it. I suspect the answer is no. I certainly don’t find it easy!
So the logical thing to do is to stop fighting those emotions, and find a better way to process them. Because at the end of the day, we all yearn to feel good and get rid of uncomfortable feelings! The question is HOW do you do that?!
I had a lovely conversation with Chrys on that topic the other day, who suggested the following 5 steps to handle difficult emotions:
1. Name the emotion
The first step is to recognise the emotion, identify how it feels, where you feel it in your body, what type of physical sensation it triggers. Does it manifest itself as a knot in your stomach? Is it a heavy sensation in your chest? or does it make your throat constrict? Once you’ve identified the physical sensations, begin to name that emotion. What are you currently feeling? Sometimes – especially if you’re not used to connect to your emotions – it can be difficult to name it accurately. So why not taking it a step at the time?
Research suggests there are between 4 and 7 basic emotions. The most common ones are Happy, Sad, Afraid and Angry. So perhaps you can begin by deciding in which category your negative emotion most likely belongs. Is it sadness? Fear or anger? Once you’ve identified the broad category, you can then refine the emotion. Is it frustration? Hurt? Disgust? Here’s a list of 10 most common negative emotions:
By practising identifying specifically your emotions, it will become easier in time to recognise and name them.
2. Honour the emotion
Once you’ve identified what you are currently feeling, do something that most of us would find counter-intuitive: instead of fighting that emotion, wishing it away or trying to change it, simply start with accepting it. You don’t have any control initially on what you feel and as I explain in a previous post, there’s a good reason for it: this emotion has got a purpose, it’s a message for you that something needs your attention.
How do you accept an emotion? Simply draw on your resilience, and recognise that fighting it alone won’t make it go away. It’s there so you may as well make friend with it and approach it with curiosity to identify what it is trying to tell you. So simply tell yourself I feel this way right now, and it’s ok. You may hear a little voice inside trying to tell you that it’s not ok, but with time and practice, that resisting part of yourself will learn and become gradually curious to explore the meaning behind this emotion. You may even want to apply the same strategy with that resistance part! Accept it. Honour it. And become curious as what is purpose is!
Before we look at the purpose behind those emotions, I’d like to pause a moment on the concept of honouring an emotion. What does that mean? It means accepting it to start with, giving it space to be and allowing it to exist. And you can even go one step further: give it love and support, as if it was a friend or a child suffering. If it helps, you can give that emotion a shape or form, perhaps a child, a person or an animal. And imagine how you would comfort them in that situation.
3. Discover the learnings
The next step is to find out what the emotion is trying to tell you. Following on NLP philosophy, our emotions – and behaviours – all have a positive message for us, even when it doesn’t look like it. So based on that assumption, when you experience a negative emotion, there is a learning for you in it. Simply ask yourself What does that emotion tell me? What is there for me to learn?
I was talking to a client who experienced a lot of anger towards her mother. And when we explored what was the message behind this anger, they discovered that the anger was there to teach them that their boundaries had been crossed. That they needed to learn to put their foot down when people disrespected them. And honouring and experiencing fully that anger was the best way to actually learn! If you repress the emotion, its impact won’t teach you the lesson you need to learn, and you are very likely to face a similar challenge soon enough. On another hand, if you accept to feel uncomfortable for a short period of time whilst you fully embrace the emotion and explore its learning, you have a brilliant opportunity to learn the lesson and never find yourself in that situation again. Which one would you prefer?!
4. The 90 seconds rule
Chrys was sharing with me during that conversation the findings of Jill Bolte Taylor, a neuroanatomist at Harvard medical school. According to Taylor, emotions only last 90 seconds in our body. Beyond that, it is the result of our thinking. CBT explains that you can’t experience an emotion without having had a thought process beforehand. Which means after the first 90 seconds, if you continue to feel the emotion it means you’re entertaining the thoughts that initially created the emotions.
So you have 90 seconds to literally take control of your thoughts and focus on something else. Whatever works! Meditation is great, but you can decide to repeat a mantra, or pick up a book or anything that will force your thoughts to move to another direction. This is not to say that you will feel ecstatic, but at least you’re taking control of your mind and of your emotions.
5. Creating the next thought
So you may wonder what do I do if the thought and the emotion comes back after all that?
Often if it’s the case, it means you either haven’t fully discovered the lessons or the learnings, or you haven’t noticed that your brain is taking you back to that spiral you were caught in the first place – in which case apply step 4 – or it could also be that you haven’t found yet a solution to your problem. And sometimes the truth is that it takes time to be able to sort out the issue you’re facing.
So in the meantime, look for the next best thought. As we’ve already explored, emotions are created by thoughts, whether you’re aware of them or not. So if you want to change your emotions, take control of your thoughts. But too often people try to jump too far away from the emotions they’re experiencing, and unrealistically want to feel immediately wonderful instead. In reality, if you’re struck by pain, it’s unlikely you’re immediately going to feel incredible joy, even if you take control of your thoughts or emotions. So you can instead imagine that emotions are like a staircase. To reach the top you need to take one step at the time. Similarly, to reach positive emotions, gradually move onto the next better thought and emotion, and then the next one and so on.
So for example if you feel anger because someone has disrespected you, you are maybe feeding that anger by telling yourself they did it on purpose. And maybe they have, but in most situations we are creating a story as to why people behave the way they do. Now if you believe they voluntarily wanted to hurt you, you’re likely going to feel strong anger. However if you choose the next best thought that could make you feel better, it could be that perhaps they were having a bad day and didn’t realise their impact on you. What do you think would happen to your anger if you changed the frame around it and replaced it by another thought like this? Most of the time it would subsides and you would calm down.
And then you can choose to create a better story, that would make you feel better until you can actually check what really happened.
I hope those few steps will help you as much as they’ve helped us and our clients. We would be delighted if you shared your experience with us so feel free to leave us a comment below!