Re-framing Negative Emotions
“You are not your emotions. You have emotions. And you can master them.”
— John Lennon
Emotions are tools that promote animal and human survival. There are not good or bad, positive or negative, they are just emotions. They may have definitions in literature and studies, but we do not have to give any power to those definitions. Norman Rosenthal discusses in his book, The Emotional Revolution, that positive emotions drive us forward and negative emotions drive us back from danger and they operate independently. Negative events evoke stronger and more rapid bodily, cognitive, and emotional reactions than do neutral or positive ones due to the potential danger and our survival instincts.
Unfortunately, we are not learning how to manage these reactions to perceived danger (which may or may not be realistic) in our current society, and many of us with forms of anxieties tend to overreact in these situations, which is why management and learning to work with all emotions is so crucial. Rosenthal goes on to say, “Success does not depend on being consistent in our feelings…but those who can accept the complexities and work through the ambiguities of their emotional landscape.”
Even how we perceive and talk about our emotions affects us. Saying things like "I feel sad" versus "I am sad" has a different affect on our brain’s perception of that emotion. We feel emotions; we are not them. Emotions are temporary and we can choose to feel them, let them move through us and move on from them.
Recently, I realized many emotions that I perceived as “negative” emotions make me feel incredibly uncomfortable and I was doing everything I could to push them away or ignore them, which unfortunately only trapped them inside for them to build up and eventually erupt and cause a meltdown of some sort. I remember the first time I acknowledged the fact that I was feeling an uncomfortable emotion; it was accidental, but it was very liberating. I was on an airplane and we were experiencing some continuing turbulence, which always causes the symptoms of my anxiety to increase. I was trying my breathing techniques and my distraction techniques to manage the physiological symptoms (holding my breath, the adrenaline rush, clenching my body, etc.), but my anxiety was growing quickly and when we hit some bigger bumps I closed my eyes, held my breath and surprisingly said to myself, “I feel afraid.” And I felt the emotion. I felt where it was in my body and I felt it dissipate out of my body. It moved through me rather quickly, and I felt my anxiety ease away.
It was eye opening that acknowledging the uncomfortable emotion is often exactly what we need to release them. I am not saying that all uncomfortable emotions disappear the moment we acknowledge them, but allowing ourselves to feel them allows them to dissipate and allows us to move on from them. As we continue to trap uncomfortable emotions inside they build upon themselves creating internal havoc until we eventually are forced to deal with them, which can be quite unpleasant and in my experience way more unpleasant than feeling the emotion in the moment.
Redefining how we perceive our emotions, from good and bad to all emotions just being emotions, helps our brain from resisting the emotions we expect to be bad or negative, and lets us feel the emotions as they come, in the moment, and then let them go. This can help us manage and even out our emotions on a greater level, and help us not trap or avoid them.
- I really like the exercise explained by Gustavo Razzetti at liberationist.org about turning emotions into a noun rather than an adjective, which can help us realize the difference that we feel when we use emotions expressed in this way. (https://blog.liberationist.org/you-are-not-what-you-suffer-from-3312a07e89c9)
- We can also look at changing the perspective of negative emotions to difficult emotions realizing they are something we can definitely overcome. (https://lifehacker.com/reframe-negative-emotions-as-difficult-emotions-1789011762)
- The Emotional Revolution, Norman E. Rosenthal