I was in my car hurrying to an appointment. It felt like I was hitting every stoplight. At one intersection the light finally turned “green” and the driver in front of me did not notice. What in “blazes” is wrong with them? Are they texting? Checking email? Or just “brain dead?” I “lightly” honked my horn. They finally got going, but it was too late for me to get through the light!! I HAD to wait for it to turn green again! I was upset.
Put yourself in that position. Would you be having an amygdala moment? The amygdala is that part of the brain that processes emotions known as “fright”, “flight”, or “fight.” It happens, doesn’t it? Everyday and in everyway, these little irritations (who left the cap off the toothpaste tube?), happen at work, at home, and in between.
The question is what would you do to calm yourself down? For many people, their emotions are mysterious and they don’t know what to do with them. Perhaps you have been modestly successful in dealing with them.
As children, most of us learned to avoid negative emotions. This was often the message we got from our families, and it has been a common experience to see it modeled by our parents and other adults as well. Add to this the message from culture, which implies that our negative emotions are unreliable. So often our strategy is to ignore them. However, they still persist.
Here are 4 ways to understand the language of our negative emotions:
1. Our negative emotions could be signaling an unmet appropriate emotional need.
If the need is met in an appropriate way, the negative emotion will usually go away. Let’s say your child needs a hug. As a result they experience a negative emotion that is expressed. You pick the child up and hold them. As a result, the negative emotion will most likely be replaced with a satisfying feeling.
2. Our negative emotions could be signaling a counterproductive thought — a self-defeating thought.
Psychologists call this a “cognitive distortion.” These are self-defeating thoughts that lead down the rabbit hole of emotional suffering. This is a wrong approach that could be pointing to a deeper problem – a bitter root that’s lodged deep inside. This “bitter root” needs to be removed. The root might involve a painful event that has remained unprocessed. Until it is acknowledged and removed, it will persist.
You cannot conquer what you will not confront.
It’s like stubbing your toe. Remember the excruciating pain when you first injured it? Until it totally heals it seems as though you are constantly bumping it. You are not hitting it hard enough to cause further injury, but it is hypersensitive to pain. Why? It’s because of the previous injury that has not healed.
So often we discover that a small experience triggers an out-of-proportion response. This can be in the form of outbursts of anger, or self-loathing.
3. Our negative emotions are proportional to our needs.
The more urgent they are, the more intense the pain. If I have a slight discomfort in my shoulder I can take time getting it corrected. If the pain is intense, I feel the need to get to a specialist immediately. The pain tells me there is a serious problem and motivates me to action.
4. Repressing our emotions produces a negative effect in our lives.
We repress them to keep from feeling pain (who wants to feel pain?). However, they should be embraced, including the pain that comes with them. They are telling us that something needs attention. It’s in this sense that they are our allies. They are our assistants that help us root out the cause of the pain.
Our emotions were designed to be helpful, not harmful. Embrace them. They will take you to the toxic root that is causing them.
By the way, whatever is wrong will always eventually come to the surface. Those negative emotions are connected to the problem, and that problem should not be ignored. If ignored, it will come to the surface in the form of ulcers, outburst of anger, insomnia, high blood pressure, anxiety and other undesirable symptoms.
Do not run from your negative emotions. Listen to them. What are they saying? If necessary, get help from someone to interpret them. Deal with them “straight on”. If not, they will come out “sideways” and become problematic.
Do not leave any negative emotion unexamined.
They give you important information. You wouldn’t avoid a friend who was giving you helpful advice. It’s the same with negative emotions. They are your friends.
One more thing. Only on sporadic occasions will the negative emotion be in the form of a “nuclear blast”. Those blow-ups might occur, but they are usually few and far in between. The numerous negative emotions we experience are fairly mild. Earthquakes that are 5 on the Richter Scale are rare. However, there are millions of earthquakes everyday. They are mild, but over time they impact the topography more than the big ones.
Those little irritations and accompanying judgments that happen everyday are where personal growth takes place – not on the macro level, but on the micro level. Pay attention and you will become a better person – one micro step at a time.
Our feelings are wonderful gifts that give insight into our condition. Listen to what they are telling you.
Leave no negative emotion unexamined. They are signposts guiding you to a fulfilling life.