How to train your dragon
Fury, hurt, confused, afraid, sad, anxious, guilty, ashamed, resentful, agitated, annoyed, fatigued, inadequate, scared, helpless, disgusted, frustrated, nervous, worthless, abandoned, overwhelmed, lonely, insecure: these are just some of the hundreds of distinct unpleasant emotions identified by research psychologists. All of us feel a few of them from time to time, many of us feel one or two of them a lot of the time. And mostly we don't like it. Sometimes though such negative feelings are transformed and overcome by an attitude, an experience or a point of view, revealing a silver lining and a deeper value to an otherwise painful experience.
Emotions, what did they ever do for us
According to evolutionary psychology, all emotions act as programs to help us adapt and solve problems (Cosmides and Tooby 2000). Emotions serve us well insofar as they give us a good indication of how we are judging whats going on in the present, what happened in the past and what we imagine will happen in the future. Positive and pleasant emotions are rewarding, shaping our behaviour in ways that keep us coming back for more. Unpleasant emotions signal punishment or threatening loss whether that be of food, security, connection or prestige. How we judge a situation determines whether it will provoke feelings of joy or despair, but either way they tend pass as the experience recedes and we become open to a new experiences and emotions.
Emotions mobilise us
Barbara Fredrickson Professor of Psychology and positive psychology researcher at Chapel Hill University asserts that positive emotions mobilise us to act in positive ways, joy provokes play, hope provokes inventive effort, inspiration provokes excellence, gratitude provokes generosity, awe provokes new perspectives. Fredrickson and her team have even suggested – not without controversy - that there is an optimal ratio for positive feelings of 3:1, that is we require three positive feelings for each negative one if we are to keep feeling good about ourselves and our place in the world. Its worth noting that she neither recommends nor thinks it possible to eliminate negative feelings altogether. Unpleasant emotions also serve to mobilise us. When responded to automatically, unpleasant feelings switch on our most habitual, well practised and simple coping responses to fight, flight, freeze or collapse. They jump start our nervous system giving all the resources to react in lightning time physically and mentally, to destroy a perceived threat, escape to safety, or submit and avoid attack. Left to themselves these simple and automatic reactions don't always work in our favour in our complex social and imaginative lives. They can backfire, be misdirected, overwhelm us and leave us wanting to escape or attack the unpleasant emotion itself.
Consider the example of a client of mine receiving some feedback at work, pointers of where something could be improved. This lead to judgements such as “they must think i'm stupid”, feeling embarrassed, judged and deflated. His response was, to punish himself further in the belief that would motivate him to improve his performance with thoughts such as “I never do anything right, I'm useless” which in turn intensified the discomfort and urge to mobilise his familiar coping skills of dismissing the feedback, squashing the emotions of hurt and insecurity with anger, venting about the incompetence of the boss and chasing away the unpleasant emotions with a shopping blitz, a few extra glasses of wine, some comfort food, or determining to never make a mistake again and really show them. Some of us try all of these, without being much better off in the end. Strong negative emotions are a good indicator that we have a desire for things to be different. Those same emotions can be so distracting that we find it hard to visualise what exactly we want to be different, in what way and how to make those changes. So what is to be done?
Nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so
When it comes to emotions, judgement and perception are what determine whether we take something well or badly, whether it stings or soothes, whether we surrender or press on. We know this. When we eat healthy we judge it to be good for us, we stick with it despite the feelings of denial and cravings. When we exercise we perceive the pain of 'the burn' but see that as a sign of our progress towards a valuable goal. We judge what we are doing to be valuable and the pain worth it. We see that the discomfort has meaning and so is tolerable. With self reflection negative emotions can act as a guide, reminding us to review our judgements, to reexamine how we see situations, giving us greater perspective and less heated reactions. In the most testing of situations and the most unpleasant of emotions, is the opportunity to grow, to see something valuable to be learned or practised, to give up an old painful pattern and put new qualities to work.
The steps to recruit your negative emotion as an ally and feel less bad less often.
1. Know that judgments evoke emotions, and emotions mobilise us to act to address the problem or get rid of the emotion.
2. Determine to suspend reacting automatically for a moment.
In that moment of space.
3. Acknowledge and name the emotion you are feeling.
4. Identifying the judgement you are making.
5. Identify what action you feel mobilised to take (fight, flight, freeze, collapse).
6. Evaluate if that will be helpful, hopeful or constructive.
7. Choose a response. (clinical tip – often the most positive response will be to act in the opposite way you feel mobilised to.)
Practise this enough times and it will become your new habitual, well practised and simple coping response. You will be less vulnerable to your own negative judgements, feel the sting of negative emotions less keenly and for shorter periods of time and have a richer more constructive repertoire of responses to choose from.
*Relating in new ways to unpleasant emotions is module 5 of most Mindfulness programmes.
Visit our Mindfulness Introduction on May 24 to find out more
PLEASE NOTE: Information provided on this site is for general information and should not be treated as substitute advice in seeking mental health support. We highly advise that you should always consult a GP if you are concerned about your mental health. WellSpring Therapy is not responsible or liable for any mental health diagnosis a user may arrive at based on the information from this site.
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