“Don't fight against negative emotions-It’s exhausting. Try to embrace them instead.” ― Anoir Ou-Chad, writer
I am listening to my husband, John, explain what would help him live more of the good life. “Give me an easy tip for how to deal with my negative emotions.” John thinks he has caught the COVID Blues – his own term for being tossed around in new, nasty ways by a flurry of difficult emotions during these pandemic times.
John is not alone. This desire for some relief from emotions we find unpleasant like fear, anger, disgust, loneliness, irritation, disappointment, self-doubt, jealousy, guilt, and sadness is common even when we are not in the middle of extremely challenging times.
As it turns out, however, trying to rid ourselves completely of our negative emotions is not a good idea.
As Todd Kashdan and Robert Biswas-Diener write in their book, The Upside of Your Dark Side, “bad” emotions and feelings are healthy in various ways, largely because they motivate us to make changes.
Here are just a few specific examples of how so-called “negative” emotions are helpful:
1. Guilt can help us become better people, or as Kashdan and Biswas-Diener write, “adds to our moral fiber.” For example, researcher have found that adults who feel guilty are less likely to steal, hurt others, or take drugs.
2. Anxiety and fear can motivate us to find solutions. Many situations are complicated. If we all sit back and twiddle our thumbs thinking all will be well, we can miss our opportunities to successfully identify and address problems.
3. Self-doubt can help us perform better. Doubt can nudge us to check out our skills, develop them further, and effectively prepare us for our challenges.
Accepting and seeing the value of dark side emotions is, strangely enough, an effective way to tone them down – moderate them, so they do not hang around past their usefulness. So, most of us can start there.
The second tip for regulating our dark side emotions (when they are too intense and prolonged) is to learn how to identify them. The approach is rather straightforward. When you sense that you are having a dark side emotion you simply try to label it. “Name it to tame it” is the refrain to remember and employ.
As I have been experimenting with the name it to tame it idea, I have realized that I need help identifying my emotions. It helps me to think about some basic emotion words like mad, sad, glad, surprised, afraid, disgusted. Then I can branch out from those words to find a closer match to the emotion I am experiencing. For example, I might sense that I am feeling something close to anger, but as I sit with it, I realize that the emotion is closer to annoyance or irritation or resentment.
Studies are showing that naming our emotions, particularly if we can notice the nuances, almost immediately releases their grip, and reduces physiological and psychological distress.
Recently, I listened to a friend, Margie, describe how her emotions changed and moderated as she used the “name it to tame it” technique.
Margie was driving cautiously and slowly around what she considered a dangerous curve on Stevens Pass. A truck beeped loudly and passed her despite the yellow lines. The driver turned his head around, stuck up his hand, and made a not-so-nice gesture. Margie immediately noticed her rage as well as her fear. As she continued to drive, within a couple of minutes she noticed that her fear and rage had morphed into annoyance and sadness. A bit later, she noticed her curiosity as to why the driver was in such a hurry.
Bottom line, we all feel “bad” sometimes. Do not immediately try to push away dark side emotions. That approach is often ineffective and makes us feel worse. Rigorously trying to avoid any unpleasantness can make us more psychologically weak, fragile, and fearful.
Instead, understand that “negative” emotions can be useful if they are not overly intense for prolonged periods of time. Learn to regulate your emotions by accepting, even embracing, dark side emotions. Remember “name it to tame it.” (Of course, professional mental health folks deal with this stuff for a living; that is always an option).
Here are some ways to learn more right now. Close your eyes for ten seconds; try to identify what you are feeling. Use the internet to google Plutchik’s wheel of emotions if you want to find the names of emotions and see how they are related. Read The Upside of Your Dark Side.
And hang on. For those of you who still think all this emotion stuff is airy-fairy, pay attention.
Being able to notice, accept, appreciate, understand, and effectively manage your human emotions (emotional intelligence), particularly those dark side emotions, is not only a way to transform your psychological pain. There seem to be physical health benefits (for example, better immune function and cardio-health) and social benefits of being able to deal better with others’ emotions as well. AND, according to new research, this sort of emotional balance is connected to wiser decision-making. We can all use more of that.
How might you learn how to effectively deal with your dark side emotions and move Journey to The Good Life?