Allowing ourselves to feel negative emotions is tough. Society is hyper focused on productivity: do whatever you need to do to get through the day. “Time is money. I should eat lunch at my desk. Wait, I’ll skip lunch entirely so I can get more work done. No excuses.” These are the kinds of thoughts that run through the minds of many individuals. What happens then to our negative emotions? Often, negative emotions like frustration, disappointment, anger, shame, guilt, fear, and anxiety are not given space to exist. Shouldn’t we just get over those feelings? How allowing ourselves to feel negative emotions and understanding where they are coming from be beneficial?
Allowing ourselves to feel negative emotions is a part of being a healthy human being. Negative emotions like frustration, disappointment, anger, shame, guilt, fear, and anxiety are just as important to feel as happiness, pleasure, relaxation, joy, and satisfaction. In order for us to embrace our authentic selves, we must embrace our emotions. Allowing ourselves to acknowledge and experience difficult emotions can be thought of as a waste of time, or even failure. But when we pretend those emotions do not exist, they do not disappear. In fact, these negative emotions often become stronger and color our perspective and seep out in unanticipated ways. Negative emotions are going to be expressed eventually, directly or indirectly, and in a potentially harmful way even when we deny them. The more we try to ignore how we feel, the more our feelings affect what we do. Being aware of what emotions we experience without judgment or shame takes time and effort, especially if you’re used to ignoring or invalidating them. But when we become friends with our emotions, we become friends with ourselves. We make wiser decisions that are more aligned with our authentic selves. If you’re one of those people who feel ashamed or embarrassed by of their negative emotions, who tries to act happy all the time but eventually bursts into tears or explodes with anger, or if you simply want to be more in touch with your compartmentalized or buried emotions, here are 4 strategies to get you started:
4 Strategies to Allow Yourself to Feel Negative Emotions
#1. Understand Where Emotions Come From
Emotions are a response to things that occur in our environment, right? Not according to cognitive behavioral theory of psychotherapy. Cognitive behavioral psychotherapy proposes that when an event occurs, a thought follows. The thought is then followed by a reaction to the thought: an emotion.
Here’s an example: Sam wakes up from a nap realizes he is late to class. He forgot to set his alarm clock. Sam thinks to himself, “Now my teacher will think I’m a slacker. I always mess things up.” Sam feels defeated and ashamed of himself. He sits in the back of the classroom and does not participate in the class discussion, even though he is well-versed in the topic.
Sam’s negative emotions are more of a response to his negative thought, his negative perception of himself, than the event of waking up late.
Take a minute to answer these questions: The last time you felt sad, angry or another painful emotion, what event preceded it? What were your thoughts after the event occurred? How did the emotion you felt affect your behavior? Now answer the same questions about a positive emotion like happiness, excited, or satisfied.
The more you practice this kind of questioning and investigation, the more you’ll learn about the source of your emotions.
#2. Be Your Own Friend
If someone you love told you that they were feeling anxious, embarrassed, ashamed, frustrated, sad, or angry - what would you do? Would you tell them to get over their negative emotion and walk away? Or listen to them with compassion? We often are not as kind to ourselves as we are to others. Many individuals do not find themselves worthy of the same love that they offer to others.
Imagine if a friend told Sam from Tip #1 that she woke up late for class. Sam is a good person. He wouldn’t tell Sam that she is a mess-up and a slacker. What might he say? Perhaps “Everyone is bound to forget to set their alarm clock once in a while” or “Being late one time in the semester is unlikely to significantly impact your grade.” Sam is being rational and self-compassionate in his response to his friend. But if he himself were late for class, his instinct would be to shame and bully himself.
Think of some of the negative thoughts that pop up frequently. What would you tell a friend if they said these things themselves? Try responding to your thoughts the way you would respond to a friend.
#3. Non-Judgmental Observation
When you find yourself experiencing a painful emotion, try to observe yourself: Are you clenching your hands? Are your eyebrows furrowed? What is the pace of your breathing? Do you feel tense in certain areas of your body? This kind of “checking-in” is often called mindfulness. The goal of mindfulness is not to be happy or zone out. The goal is pay attention to the present moment, without judgment. When judgements pop up, observe those too! Take mental note of the judgment, and then let it go. You don't have to hold on to it. You cannot control what you experience, but you can control how you react. Remember, be kind to yourself!
Writing about your shame, embarrassment, frustration, exhaustion, anxiety, anger, sadness and other painful emotions helps to decrease their intensity. Journaling is a great way to acknowledge our emotions and explore why we feel the way we do with less vulnerability and risk than disclosing emotions to a person. Journal entries don’t need to be pages long, written elegantly in script with a quill; They can be short, simple scribbles in a plain notebook, a planner, or even a journal app on your phone. Jotting down quick observations like “I feel annoyed by the song playing in this cafe” or “Super nervous about the exam” is a great start of nurturing a friendship with your emotions, yourself.
It’s not fun to feel emotions like sadness, frustration, and nervousness. But when we allow ourselves to feel negative emotions, we raise our self-esteem by honoring what is it we truly feel. If we allow our negative emotions to exist, positive emotions are also given more of a chance to exist. If you are having trouble identifying, acknowledging or expressing your negative emotions and you still want help, we can help. We offer Individual, Couples, Family Therapy and Support Groups at The Center for Growth / Therapy in Philadelphia near Washington Square Park. For people living in the greater Philadelphia region we offer face-to-face appointments and for people living far away we offer telephone counseling.