Negative Emotions – a Path to Happiness?August 1 , 2013

Some people find it interesting that I spend time talking about negative emotions.  I sometimes get the “You’re supposed to be the Happiness Coach, right?”  As if acknowledging that we have negative emotions will somehow detract from our happiness.

The research shows that the opposite is true.  That effectively managing our negative emotions (sadness, fear, anger, worry, guilt, grief, frustration, and all those other emotions that make us feel icky) is an essential component to becoming happier.   Part of this is about how to reduce our time in those negative states, but the much more important task is to learn when to open up to and embrace some of these negative emotions.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.  Let’s start with a few important basics to managing the bad stuff.   Then we’ll be digging deeper into some proven tools over the next couple months.

Negative emotions are part of life

If you are going to live and love in this world, you are going to feel negative emotions.  It’s important to give yourself permission to be human and not push away these emotions.  A lot of our growth and learning comes from this negative space.

But there’s a difference between being authentically disappointed that you weren’t chosen for that promotion/team/party/friendship, and expanding that disappointment into a story that you are worthless and no one ever liked you and no one ever will, etc. etc.  (much more on this next post!).

Bring Awareness to your emotions

You can’t change what you don’t notice, so awareness of your emotional state is an essential first step.   Often when we are feeling negative emotions, they bubble along in the background.  When this happens, we sometimes react on autopilot and snap at loved ones or ruminate incessantly.  This keeps us mired in negative space.  So make a practice of checking in with your own emotional state on a regular basis.

Let’s try it right now…  What are you feeling at this moment?

(Pause and check.  Really!)

If you find you often fall into negative emotional space without noticing, spend a couple weeks actively checking in.  Set your phone alarm or outlook alert to go off every hour and see what you are feeling.  Or post little sticky notes around your house, car and on computer screen.  Each time you notice one, check in.  When I did this exercise a few months ago, I realized how often I had anxious feelings and was tightening my shoulders and catching my breath.  Awareness is the first step.

Name That Tune (or Emotion)

Brain scans show that verbal information almost immediately diminishes the power of negative emotions by engaging the thinking side of the brain.  Once you notice that you are in a negative space, call it out.  Pause and figure out which negative emotion you are feeling (is it disappointment or frustration?  Anxiety or nervousness?). Verbalize it to yourself or a friend. Consciously think, or say, “I’m feeling anxious,” “I’m feeling angry,” or “I’m feeling sad.”

Let It Be

Often when we notice a negative emotion, we move to squash it as soon as we can. We react, “I don’t want to feel this! Go away!”  But the research is clear: when we suppress our negative emotions, our misery multiplies and (counter-intuitively) it inhibits our ability to feel positive emotions.  But when we give those negative emotions some space to be felt and to grow and change, it opens up the path for positive emotions to flow too.

Make a Decision

Once we notice, name and allow the negative emotion to exist, then we can decide what we want to do.  We may WANT to stay in that space for a while to be angry or sad.  That’s fine.  (You might take yourself away, however, to not inflict your own emotional pain on innocent bystanders or family members).

At some point, seconds or hours or days later, you will want to get back to a neutral or positive space.  We’ll be spending the next couple months going through the tools of how to move through this negativity and provide a healthy path to getting back to positive.  We’ll kick this off next week by categorizing the kind of negativity we are feeling – whether it is gratuitous or necessary.  This initial evaluation will set us on the best path forward.

Eric Karpinski
The Happiness Coach
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