What is the best approach to dealing with “negative” emotions?

My approach, as a psychologist with 32 years of experience dealing with, and teaching others to deal with, emotions is a bit different than what you’ll get from most other sources.

First of all, I do not believe that there are any negative emotions.  To label something as “negative” is to imply that it should be eliminated.  As an example, you do not want a negative evaluation at work or a negative balance in your checkbook.

People label emotions such as anger as negative because they observe others who get angry, do bad things, and blame their anger for the bad behavior.  This is like blaming your smoke detector when it wakes you up in the middle of the night either because the battery is low or there is a fire.  The smoke detector is doing its job!

You have emotions because your emotions perform an important function for you which is to alert you to your surroundings and prepare you for action.  This function is the emotion’s job. From this point of view, all emotions are adaptive.  Your job is to learn what emotions are, what they do, and how you can master them to control your life.

Secondly, many writers talk about controlling your emotions.  While I do believe you need to control your actions, I do not talk about controlling your emotions. If you think about it, you do not control your computer (Yes, I know about programming the computer, but this is not what most of us do.), you learn how to master it so that it does what you want it to do.

That said, here are my recommendations:

I developed the Emotions as Tools Model (Emotions as Tools A Self Help Guide to Controlling Your Life not Your Feelings) to teach incarcerated young women (and others) how to adaptively interact with their emotions.

I suggest you master your emotions as tools to adaptively gain back control of your life.

Your emotions come from the way you  perceive the world around you and alert you to your perceptions.  This alert is the message of the emotion.

Once you learn to acknowledge the emotion and its message, you empower yourself to question the validity of the message and choose how you want to respond to it.

The message of anger is that you perceive a threat (to your goals, your values, your finances, your beliefs) that you can eliminate if you throw enough force at it.  Anger is a primitive emotion that exists in cultures around the world and in several non-human species.  When we get angry, the adrenalin flows and we are ready for action.  This is why a 5’5″ mom can lift a car off of her son.

The problem is that most people REACT instead of RESPOND to their anger and do dumb things. This is why anger is labelled a negative emotion. People blame the emotion for a person’s behavior rather than holding the person responsible.  While it is true that an emotion motivates an individual to act in a particular way, one always has a choice about what one does.

When you recognize that you are angry, stop and take a breath.  The purpose of the breath is to give you a second or two to take the next step. Taking a breath, reading a book, listening to music or any other distraction are not solutions to anger.

The next step is to question how valid (real) the threat is.

If the threat is to an important goal, asset, or value, take action.

If the threat is to your ego, your opinion, or some minor goal, then you can decide that there is no real threat and leave the situation, engage in conversation, or, at this point, try distraction.

This takes practice, but it is doable.

Next, let me address fear and anxiety as they are not the same.

Fear is a primitive, present based, emotion the message of which is that you are facing a threat that will kill you.  This is the “hair on the back of your neck” feeling.

When you experience fear, I recommend that you get away from the situation.  As an example, if you are about to enter an elevator and you get a creepy feeling about the guy standing there, take the next elevator regardless of whatever your logic tells you.  The best book on fear is Gavin deBecker’s book “The Gift of Fear”.

Anxiety is a future based emotion.  The message of anxiety is that there MAY be a threat and that the threat MAY “kill” me.

When you experience anxiety, assess the nature of the threat.  If the threat is something you need to take action on (my students studying for an exam, preparing for a job interview, or learning how to ask your boss for a raise), then ask yourself if you could survive the worst possible outcome.  If the answer is yes, take the action. This type of anxiety is called eustress and is motivating.

If the threat is not critical, is beyond your ability to influence, or is based on the  way you think things should be, then decide to let go of the anxiety and move on. This type of stress is called distress and is disabling. The anxiety will not immediately go away so you will have to remind yourself over and over to let go of it.

So, the best approach to dealing with “negative” emotions is to accept that there are no “negative” emotions and to learn to master the emotions as tools.

I welcome your comments on the above.

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