4 Steps to Process Negative Emotions
For the majority of my life, I’ve been a heavy self-criticizer. I’m sure many people out there are the same way. When I would feel negative emotions, I would direct them toward myself and berate myself endlessly. It never made sense to me – why would I ever be worthy enough to feel any of these emotions? I thought absurd things like,
“How could I feel sad, when there are so many others suffering much more than I am? How could I feel angry, when there are horrible betrayals taking place in the world? I am a fool for thinking I can feel bad about anything. I should just be happy all the time, because I have so much to be grateful for. I’m such a selfish person to even think I can be upset”.
Hoo boy. What a mess! Where do we even begin? How can we process and release these negative emotions in a healthy way?
Photo by Pietra Schwarzler
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I will give a personal example to work through each of the following steps, because it may illustrate better how to apply these steps. Some background information for new readers: I suffer from depression and social anxiety (particularly social performance anxiety). However, many of my actionable suggestions are not limited only to those suffering from mental illness. Processing emotions in a healthy manner is a practice that is beneficial for everyone.
Step 1: Notice
When we are caught up in our negative thought spirals, it is difficult to notice what is happening. Think of it like a waterslide. You have one thought and one associated emotion, and then another, and then another…you’re very rarely able to stop yourself once you begin going down the waterslide. But you can notice that you are in that waterslide. You can notice that you are spiralling. And unlike a waterslide with a definite destination, you can manipulate the course of your thoughts and emotions midway. Once you notice this, you can ask yourself,
What am I feeling?
Let’s get one thing straight – we toss around the terms “good/positive emotions” and “bad/negative emotions”, but it is not enough to dichotomize emotions into these two categories. It discredits the importance of fully understanding and recognizing every crevice of your overall emotional state. It’s tough not to just say, “I’m feeling bad”. But we need to dig deeper. What does “bad” mean? Practice being able to recognize and differentiate between different emotions. It becomes much easier to process your emotions if you know what they are. Think about how ludicrous it would be to try and bake a cake without knowing what goes into that cake! If “bad” is the cake, what are its ingredients?
List of emotions likely to be attached to “bad”:
Angry, annoyed, ashamed, anxious, bitter, bored, confused, depressed, disgusted, embarrassed, envious, furious, frustrated, grieving, hurt, insecure, inadequate, irritated, jealous, joy, lost, lonely, miserable, nervous, overwhelmed, resentful, sad, self-conscious, scared, shocked, stupid, suspicious, terrified, trapped, tense, uncomfortable, worthless, worried
We did presentations today on different mental illnesses/disorders prevalent in children. One group showed a video that contained a clip of a mother talking about her suicide attempt. This triggered me intensely. I am sitting in class, getting more and more upset. I feel angry (that the clip was shown without a specific content warning), ashamed (that I am no longer able to focus on the presentation), embarrassed (because some people are seeing me getting upset), overwhelmed (by my own memories and thoughts), and uncomfortable (because I am being exposed to a trigger of mine).
Step 2: Distract yourself when you experience a very rapid and intense emotion in response to an immediate situation (e.g., a trigger)
9 times out of 10, it is going to feel impossible to tackle your emotions head on in the moment. Distracting yourself is not avoiding the problem. It is simply allowing yourself to create the headspace required to work through the problem once your emotions settle down a bit. Anything simple that will require you to focus on something else other than your emotions will work. Some ideas:
- Leave the space. Remove yourself physically from the situation that is causing you to feel these intense emotions.
- Useful for panic/anxiety attacks: use mindfulness to bring yourself back to the present. Find something to focus on that you can see, something you can hear, something you can touch, something you can taste, or something you can smell. You can also alternate between different senses. Focus purely on the physical sensations.
- Sudoku, crossword puzzles, any simple mobile game that requires some focus like Flow or Geometry Dash
- Count something. Count your breaths (put one hand on your stomach and breathe slowly in and out). Count a particular sound that you hear. Count the bricks on the wall. The tiles on the floor. The branches on a tree. Start from any number and subtract a constant number from it repeatedly.
- Talk with a friend, family member, or loved one if the situation allows.
I left the classroom, because you don’t put out a fire by standing in it. A friend came out of the classroom to check on me and we walked around in the halls together and talked about something other than what happened in the classroom.
Step 3: Self-validate
Your emotions are valid. They really, really are.
Let me tell you, the only valid statement in that quote from the intro is, “I have so much to be grateful for”. But gratefulness/gratitude has nothing to do with whether or not your negative emotions are valid. I’ve heard it all too often from individuals who are not yet well-informed about depression: “Why are you sad? There is so much worse in the world. You should be thankful for what you have”. Though their intentions are pure, frankly, they have no idea what they are talking about. In the world of mental illness, and in fact in the world of any member of the Homo sapiens species, sadness, emptiness, anger, disappointment, and any other connotatively negative emotion are completely natural, and are always valid. How can you check? How can you know? Well, you’re feeling the emotion. That means they are valid. Repeat it with me, everyone:
My emotions are valid simply because I feel them.
Self-validation is always the first step here in the nicomochi blog, and should always be the first step when you are doing any mental work surrounding thoughts and emotions. It is one thing to understand that your emotions are valid, and it is a completely different thing to tell yourself that it is true…and mean it. It won’t happen overnight, but building the habit of self-validating immediately after you notice you are feeling a negative emotion is a good practice. We tend to be hardwired to automatically speak down to ourselves when we are not feeling well. One way to combat this is by overwriting the automatic thought spirals that you currently have by severing it – with automatic self-validation. Again, it is okay if this is a difficult thing to do. It is inevitable! We’ve been using the same thought spirals for so long that they have become ingrained in us. It will take time. It will take perseverance.
It is okay that I am feeling this way. I was exposed to a trigger of mine, and I am doing what I can to take care of myself.
Step 4: Work through the emotion by learning everything about it after you’ve had some time to settle down from the initial emotional peak, or when you want to process a bottled up negative emotion
Here are some options for actions you can take to process your emotions:
Note (cw: self-harm): If you self-harm, I want you to know that I understand how come you do it. I have been there. There are much, much healthier ways to channel your negative emotions. I promise you. Please give some of the following alternative choices a chance.
Channel your negative emotions through something.
- Vent all your emotions and thoughts onto a blank paper. Keep writing and writing and letting it all out. Try to write with no judgment at all about what or how you are writing. This freestyle writing style is called stream of consciousness writing. I’ve done this with a simple pen and paper, a word document, and even online through Tumblr. (With that last one, I advise you to make it a protected blog if you are freestyle writing, but no judgment if you don’t.)
- Vent art. You do not have to be artistically inclined to create vent art. You just need a medium (paper, clay, playdough, Windows Paint or any other random sketching software) and something to create the art. I’ve done anything from sketches to poetry to scribbling to singing covers of some sad songs. The act of putting your negative emotions down in the physical world can help you fully be present in it, work through it and separate yourself from the emotions afterward.
- (cw: self-harm) If you struggle with cutting, try your best to suggest to yourself to draw on your skin with a washable marker instead.
Talk to a trusted friend, family, or loved one.
This is context-dependent. If you are dealing with suicidal thoughts or thoughts of harming yourself, then you must contact the emergency department or a crisis line. This is because the person you share your emotions and thoughts with is likely not a mental health professional, and may not be equipped to provide all of the care that you need in a crisis situation.
However, for less dire situations and grievances, talking about things that are bothering you with other people can be extremely cathartic. For those that are interested in Myers-Briggs typologies, I am an INFJ, and so I do well by bouncing ideas off of other people. I process my emotions well by talking through them with others. I usually try to work them out on my own first, but I have found that this only works to a certain extent before they are just bottled up and stored away, waiting to be fully processed. Usually when I bottle emotions, they end up as a molotov cocktail. So try your best not to shelve emotions!
Headspace is an excellent application to practice mindfulness meditation. The idea is that you practice staying fully present with all types of physical sensations, emotions and thoughts. You label each emotion or thought as an emotion or a thought, and acknowledge both as transient phenomena. You let yourself feel that emotion. You sit with that emotion, fully embracing it. Not suppressing it at all. You think, feel, and eventually, let go. This exercise will help you to realize that this is a difficult emotion to work through, but it will eventually fade.
Work through a thought record exercise.
Thought records are used heavily in CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy) to help you reframe your thoughts toward healthier alternative thoughts. This can help you work through your thoughts and emotions in a more systematic manner. I’ve written a post on thought records (it includes a free printable template with some examples that I had written in the past). These are effective when dealing with emotions that arose as a result of your perception of a situation. Lucky for us, this is usually the case!
Ask yourself the following questions:
This is more of a personal procedure, but I like to sit in silence and think over some of the following questions:
- When I’ve felt like this before, what happened to that emotion? (Usually the answer is: I was able to feel the emotion and let it go after understanding it. Emphasis on having been able to let it go.)
- How effective is it for me to self-criticize? Did my emotional state ever improve from constantly berating myself?
- Why are my emotions valid? (Again: because you feel them. But sometimes there are other reasons than just the simple one!)
- What can I do to be kind to myself right now?
- Has any human being lived without any mistakes? Is it reasonable for me to expect perfection of myself?
The importance of emotional agility over emotional suppression
Current society tends to promote this idea that we are expected to deal with emotions by suppressing them. That having difficult, negative emotions makes us weak. That we should “just get over it” (I detest that phrase to my very core). NO. Emotions are meant to be expressed! The culture that perpetuates emotional suppression will conveniently sweep under the rug the greater issue: when we inevitably cannot suppress our emotions, how do we express them in a healthy manner? Not many people even consider it, so not many people know.
One expert in this field is Susan David, a Harvard Medical School psychologist. She gave a TED talk in 2017 on this matter of emotional agility over emotional suppression. I recommend everyone to watch or listen to her speak to learn more about emotional agility (seriously, this talk brought tears to my eyes – it is that good). She describes several tenets of the phrase in her TED talk, including the importance of noticing, identifying, and fully exploring one’s own emotions. She has also written a book: Emotional Agility: Get Unstuck, Embrace Change, and Thrive in Work and Life where she describes why and how to use emotional agility in our daily lives and work. She also created a free online emotional agility quiz! It takes 5 minutes to complete and will leave you with a 10-page personalized report on how to cultivate emotional agility in your own life.
Always remember to love (ARTL),
- McKay M, Wood JC, Brantley J. The Dialectical Behavior Therapy Skills Workbook: Practical DBT exercises for learning mindfulness, interpersonal effectiveness, emotion regulation & distress tolerance. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications; 2007. 232 p. (A New Harbinger self-help workbook).
- Greenberger D, Padesky CA. Mind over mood: change how you feel by changing the way you think. Second edition. New York, NY: The Guilford Press; 2016. 341 p.