People tend to see emotions like anger, sadness, or fear as bad things; at best they’re a distraction, at worst a weakness. There’s a perception that these feelings disrupt logical thinking and lead to bad decisions—that negative emotions simply get in our way.
You can even hear it in how we often use emotions as insults:
- “God, you’re so emotional,”
- “Quit being such a drama queen.”
- “Don’t be a crybaby.”
We think our emotions betray us. So it makes sense that sometimes we even get emotional at our own emotions: we get pissed at our sadness, afraid of our anger, or made hopeless by our anxiety. Then down the rabbit hole of negative feelings we go, round and round as we lose sight of what upset us in the first place.
So it’s no wonder that we’ll try anything to hide our feelings. We fear negative emotions as evidence of our own failure.
This way of hiding our emotions is dangerous.
This is why people start to eat to soothe worries. It’s the reason we’ll watch TV when we’re feeling lonely or drink to numb ourselves. But this doesn’t solve anything. This doesn’t make the feelings go away, just hides them from view.
But if our goal is to simply get rid of the evidence, get rid of these feeling as quickly as possible, hiding them is the logical shortcut we take to get there.
There’s something important you should know: a way to break this cycle.
Negative emotions aren’t a distraction or a weakness, they’re communication.
They’re our bodies ways of telling us that something important is going on. Before we can put something into words, emotions are a red alert that we need to pay attention.
And just like ignoring someone shouting for help, when we try to avoid our feelings they are going to get louder. Our feelings want to help us understand something important and they won’t go away until the message is delivered.
So instead of trying to shut out your negative emotions, instead of fearing them as evidence of your failure, what if you did something radically different?
What if you turn toward your emotions, look them right in the eyes, and ask “What’s wrong?”
Negative emotions are communication and by listening to your emotions you give yourself the power to help them. Next time you notice yourself feelings something powerful, slow down and be curious. Ask yourself some questions.
- First pay attention to the physical experience. What sensations are you having?
- Then, if you know, what’s the name of the feeling?
- Then gently ask yourself what happened that led to this feeling?
- Does something in the world feel wrong?
- Does something in the world remind of something wrong that happened in the past?
- Do you feel like you did something wrong?
- Are you thinking about something wrong happening in the future?
Then ask yourself a very loving question. With all the same gentleness and compassion you would offer to a scared child,
“What can I do to help?”
Perhaps helping is simple.
In which case, great! Go do it. Feel better.
But perhaps the feeling doesn’t know how you can help it, or helping seems too intimidating to even begin to try. Maybe the answer you get confuses you or you’re embarrassed by what the feeling wants. In which case, it’s helpful to talk with a therapist about what your next steps might be.
But even if you never speak to someone else about it, asking these questions can be extremely helpful. Because even if you don’t know what to do with what you find, there is something powerfully healing in simply being listened to by someone who loves you.
What a wonderful gift to offer yourself when that loving person is you.