Emotions can be a veritable minefield, they can be our greatest friend or our worst enemy. Some have a way of sneaking up on you when you least expect it whilst others like to mark out a comfortable spot in your psyche and settle in for the long haul.
If we are talking about positive emotions such as joy or excitement we tend to welcome them in with open arms and an open ended invite.
Yet if these emotions fall on the negative side such as anxiety or anger they are firmly told their name isn’t on the list and they’re not getting in. The problem with this approach is that it’s impossible to shut out negative emotions yet ride off into the sunset with the positive ones, they just cannot be cherry-picked.
These negative nasties are part of our emotional make-up. You can’t outrun then and you can’t hide from them. Instead of being held hostage at their mercy each time they appear perhaps a shift in perspective is needed.
In trying to understand their purpose and learn how to release them in a healthy way we can develop a better relationship with them so that they show up as overnight guests instead of moving in for good.
Changing our emotional behavior is never easy but these 5 steps might help to show how we can learn to release negative emotions in an emotionally safe way:
1. Feel The Feelings
Have you ever noticed how young children deal with their wild array of emotions? They simply abandon whatever they’re in the middle of and let the emotion pass through them.
Whilst it might not look like an emotionally mature reaction to sit down in the middle of Target and wail at the top of their lungs this is actually where kids have one over us. They instinctually feel their feelings. The interesting part about this is that it’s usually a very quick process (yet probably feels like a lifetime to most parents).
I’ve yet to meet a 6 year old harboring a year-long grudge over not being allowed a piece of cake. They get upset, stamp their feet and move the hell on. It’s actually how we as humans are designed, yet as we grow older it becomes less socially acceptable to simply stop in the middle of the supermarket and start screaming.
It is of vital importance to understand that emotions are simply energy. If we refuse to deal with them they go and find a hiding place deep inside our body.
Stuffing our feelings down by pretending they don’t exist or lying to ourselves simply prolongs the process. Instead, when you notice a negative emotion coming in try to actually sit with it for a while. No easy feat, it can be incredibly intense initially.
Notice which part of your body it’s affecting, name the emotion. In saying out loud “I’m feeling anxious right now’ it can loosen its grip.
Unfortunately negative emotions tend to come with a physical reaction, for example you can literally shake with anger or become nauseous from anxiety.
Find a quiet place and let your body do what it needs to do. Cry, scream, or simply curl up in a ball. Chances are that when you allow yourself to really feel the feeling it no longer has the same hold over you. When it comes to emotions the only way round is through.
2. Ritualize Your Mornings
Have you ever gone to bed angry and woken up with that same anger burning a hole in your pillow? Or simply just woken up on the wrong side of the bed, feeling wretched for no apparent reason.
The first few moments of the morning can be one of the most powerful, whatever mood we climb out of bed in tends to cling to us all day. That’s why it can be incredibly powerful to have a morning ritual as a means to cleanse the emotional palette. Effective rituals vary but the following can be highly effective:
Journaling: Putting our thoughts out of our head and onto paper can be incredibly cathartic and stream of consciousness writing can be one of the most powerful ways to journal.
Simply write out your thoughts as they stream through you, without review or judgement. Even if you have nothing to say, simply write ‘I have nothing to say’ over and over again until another insight appears or simply until the page is filled.
Once you’ve filled your set number of pages, don’t review. This isn’t a diary, it’s a tool to purge negative emotions.
Meditation: Quieting the mind through the breath is quite simply one of the most powerful tools we have to release negative emotion, yet it is no easy endeavor.
Find a quiet spot and sit quietly for ten to fifteen minutes, focusing on your breath or on a mantra (I find inhaling ‘Let’ and exhaling ‘Go’ to be simple yet effective). When we create a meditation practice, our monkey mind learns to settle and we become more in tune with ourselves which in turn leads to mindfulness.
Being mindful creates more space between our thoughts so that we can actually start to become aware when negative emotions creep in, giving us the opportunity to nip it in the bud before the emotion snowballs and takes over your day or your week.
3. Exorcise Through Exercise
As human beings we are designed to move. Exercise is incredibly good for us not only from a physical perspective but from a mental perspective.
The hormones that are released when our hearts are pumping and our bodies moving can quite literally change our mindset. The very act of going for a walk, a run or attacking a set of weights forces the mind to focus on the task at hand.
Next time you are enraged by something, instead of reaching for a bag of chips or numbing out in front of the TV, get physical. Even if it means dancing around your room like a maniac to some gangster rap music (a personal favorite of mine), you’ll feel a heck of a lot better and possibly have a laugh at just how ridiculous you look.
4. Change Your Perspective
There’s a well-known quote which states “If you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change”. Put simply, perspective is everything.
Next time you find yourself faced with negative emotions, before you leap down the rabbit hole of rationality and start assigning blame or creating a story around the situation, take a deep breath and ask yourself ‘How can I see this situation differently?’.
There are quite literally two sides to every story and then there’s the truth. Even if the other person is clearly in the wrong try to see things from their perspective. Perhaps you need to run through steps 1-3 above before you feel ready, but seeing things from a different perspective can invite a sense of compassion.
If you get into a fight with a friend, try to look at the situation anew. She might be going through a tough time and taking it out on you, not fair but understandable.
Even if it’s impossible for you to see the situation any differently, understand that harboring negative emotion only damages you. Learn to let it go, you don’t have to forget what happened but you can try to forgive and move on with your life.
Emotions are somewhat akin to snowballs. The longer they are allowed to roll on, the bigger they become. Next time you find yourself in the midst of a negative emotional state, try compartmentalizing it. You might be annoyed at the fact that your babysitter cancelled on you at the last minute, but projecting your frustrations onto your husband who in turn projects his frustrations onto the kids serves only one purpose.
The whole family gets dragged into the boiling cauldron of negative emotion because the situation snowballed. Instead, get really clear on why you are annoyed or anxious and ring fence it.
Don’t let your sadness that you didn’t get that job bleed over into an avalanche of awfulness. Deal with it, dust yourself off and move on. Life can be hard and we all run into situations we don’t like, the key is not to let the negative aspects detract from the positive parts of your life.