So many of us make negative emotions so much more painful than they need to be. Often, we are so afraid of negative emotions that we let them control our lives and relationships. We create pain by trying to avoid pain.
Life doesn’t have to be this hard!
When it comes to coping with negative emotions, we have four options. Three of those options distance us from ourselves and increase our suffering. The fourth option connects us to ourselves and reduces suffering.
Ways to cope
When we unconsciously allow a negative feeling to fuel negative action, we are reacting. Toddlers having a tantrum are reacting, putting their emotions on full display. But it isn’t just 2-year old kids that react. Adults do it, too. Post-Mormons who write a nasty response to a believing Mormon’s text message are reacting. When we react, we are letting our negative emotions take charge of our actions.
Sometimes we feel powerful or justified reacting, but reacting doesn’t allow our thinking brain to have a voice. Reacting means the thing we are reacting to is controlling us. Unless someone is physically attacking us, reacting isn’t useful.
This is what the thinking part of our brain does to try to convince our negative emotions they aren’t necessary. We resist when we try to press down our emotions with willpower. Resistance is one part of our brain telling the other, I shouldn’t be feeling this way. It’s wrong to feel this way. I don’t need to feel this way. I don’t want to feel this way.
During our Mormon experiences, many of us were directly or indirectly taught that we shouldn’t allow ourselves to feel certain emotions. Most Mormons and Post-Mormons are so good at resisting emotions that we don’t even realize we’re doing it. Resisting can lead to anxiety, lack of confidence, and being out of tune with oneself.
When we try to neutralize a negative feeling by doing something that produces a feel good chemical in our brain, we are buffering. Buffering is a means to escape from or to numb unwanted emotions.
We can buffer with activities like drinking, watching porn, gambling, shopping, gaming, and surfing the internet. It’s not that anything is inherently wrong about these activities, but when we use them to avoid negative emotion, we are left feeling worse than when we started. The negative emotion we were trying to avoid resurfaces plus we often have additional consequences from the buffering activity.
At a minimum, our creative energy stagnates and we lose confidence in our ability to handle emotional pain. Then, we buffer more and we find ourselves trapped in a cycle.
Resisting and buffering are both ways we sever our mind/body connection. Continuously ignoring the vibrations in our body is a means of ignoring ourselves. Even more problematic is that these methods of dealing with negative emotion lead us to not trust ourselves.
So what’s the alternative?
Feel our feelings
Yes. We are capable of feeling our feelings. Another way to say this is processing our feelings.
At first, willingly feeling a negative emotion seems as counter-intuitive as running towards a fire. Our brain will try to convince us that leaning into discomfort is crazy, especially if we’ve spent years running away.
Our brain will try to tell us that if we don’t resist negative emotions, they’ll grow.
Our brain is flat out lying.
What makes the negative emotion seem big and unbearable isn’t actually the negative emotion. It’s the resistance we’ve been adding to it.
Fearing emotions is much more of a problem for us than feeling them.
But we have to learn to feel them in order to realize it’s true.
How to Process an Emotion
The first step in feeling an emotion is to notice it. Remember, an emotion is a physiological vibration in our body.
To process an emotion, we can ask ourselves questions:
- What am I feeling? [Give the emotion a name.]
- Where in my body do I feel the emotion?
- Is the vibration in my body comfortable or uncomfortable?
- Is the sensation strong or weak?
- Is it fast or slow?
- Is it hot or cold?
- If it was a color what color would it be?
- If the emotion was a person what would the person be doing?
- How does the emotion move through my body?
- If I were describing this emotion to an alien what would I say?
- How does the emotion change through time and how long does it last?
I like to think of processing as a way we make friends with our emotions. When we know how they act in our body, we will be able to more easily identify them when they show up.
For example, when we know what irritation is and how it works in our body, we can let it do its thing. We might say to ourselves, “Oh, I’m feeling irritated again. While it’s not comfortable, there’s nothing wrong with feeling this way. It’s part of the human experience and I can totally handle it. I’ll just notice the irritation as it moves through my body.”
Allowing an emotion, like irritation, also assists us in accessing the thoughts causing it. Awareness of our thoughts empowers us with the option to question or change our thinking.
Besides this, the more times we allow ourselves to feel an emotion, the more we will realize we have the capacity to feel it. We also realize that if we don’t resist it, it won’t last. All emotions will release themselves from us when they’re done. We don’t have to do anything but be willing to welcome the next emotion that comes.
The Benefits of Processing Negative Emotions
- Less fear. The more familiar we are with how an emotion feels and moves through us, the less scary it will be. The unknown is always more frightening than the known.
- More confidence. When we realize we have the capacity to handle all emotions, we are more willing to try new things and grow.
- More joy. We feel positive emotions with more intensity. It may sound crazy, but we need the contrast provided by negative emotions to feel fully alive.
- More energy. Resisting emotions drains us.
- Better relationships. We show up whole in our relationships when we have the skills to take care of our emotions. We are willing to be vulnerable, opening up the possibility for intimacy.
Emotions are the fuel for everything we do in life. As humans, we have the capacity to feel all of them. Feeling is living! A willingness to feel is a willingness to fully experience our lives.
And those of us who no longer interpret emotions through a Mormon lens have a lot of living to do!