Allowing Negative Emotions

Negative Feelings

When we have uncomfortable feelings such as boredom, loneliness, irritation, jealousy, sadness, or anxiety, most of us look for distractions—eating even though we’re really not hungry, scanning our smart phone for messages, mindlessly viewing social media or surfing the internet, turning on the television or radio, jumping in the car to go shopping or for a drive, consuming alcohol or even a drug, and so on. Although we don’t usually associate such activities with negative emotions, I want to suggest that we do often use them to dull our awareness and distract us from our deeper, inner feelings.

A personal experiment

Try an experiment. Pay more attention to your day-to-day experience and notice when you are about to engage in one of these activities. Before you do so I want to ask you to pause. Close your eyes. Let your attention flow to your in-breath and out-breath for several seconds. Then ask yourself what you’re feeling. (Frankly, it’s sometimes hard to come up with a feeling word if you’ve not paid attention to your emotions.) But stay with this awareness to see what comes up. Perhaps you’ll notice a sense of being unsettled—some degree of boredom, loneliness, anxiety, irritation, inadequacy, jealousy, sadness…. Then be aware of how you might use a habitual behavior to cover over this emotion.

My point is not that the above-mentioned behaviors are bad or always a cover-up of deeper feelings. In fact, we often do these behaviors because they are entertaining or productive. My point is that we would do well to wake up, to become more conscious of our inner experience and how it drives our behavior.

Awareness of our Emotions

Becoming aware of our negative emotions has several advantages. First, it adds a richness to our lives. We like to think of ourselves as intelligent, rational beings but we are likewise emotional beings. Our emotions are the qualitative aspect of our lives. They express the depth, fullness, and abundance of our experience. Life would be quite mechanical and even dull if we were nothing more than thinking machines.

Second, understanding our emotions is how we solve problems and grow. Negative emotions (mild to severe) alert us that something is not right. They are cues that prompt us that our lives are out of harmony with either what we desire or the natural lawfulness of the universe. It is because of this dissonance that we can learn, change, and grow.

And third, being aware of our negative emotions empowers us to make better choices. When unaware, we simply react and act out our feelings in automatic and often harmful ways. They control us, we don’t control them. Becoming aware is the first step to interrupting the pattern of habitual, distracting behavior. It opens up the opportunity to behave differently and make new choices.

Of course, we don’t like negative, unsettled emotions and so it seems easier to avoid them through seemly innocuous behaviors. The problem occurs when these behaviors keep us from solving problems, realizing our vision, feeling more fully human and alive, or becoming more emotionally aware and mature.

Learn to observe your negative emotions

So what am I recommending? What can you do? I’m suggesting that you become more emotionally intelligent and less driven by habitual behaviors by recognizing the natural ebb and flow of your emotions. Learn to observe your emotions. Even more importantly, learn to observe your emotions from a place of compassion and non-judgment.

You do this by following the process I suggested above. At various times of the day, pause. Close your eyes. Pay attention to the inflow and outflow of your breath. Ask yourself what you’re feeling in this moment. Take a few minutes to “be with” your feelings without judging them as “good” or “bad.” Allow them. Give them space, giving up your tendency to be hard on yourself because of what you feel; giving up the thinking you have to do anything about them in this moment. Simply notice, embrace, let them be.

This process is hard for many people for two reasons. One is that some feelings seem overwhelming. By allowing them they think they’re giving in and empowering them to dominate their lives. Second, people feel guilty about their negative feelings and see them as evidence that they are indeed flawed, broken, or inadequate.

However, paradoxically, as we stop hiding from our negative feelings and begin to notice and allow them, we get to a deeper, quieter place within. I call this compassionate awareness. It is an experience that is deeply nourishing and ultimately liberating. However, be aware that this is not a quick fix. Rather it is a way of being that we practice over and over again. Yet from practice we begin to see that our feelings don’t define us. They are natural and part of the flow of our human experience. From this practice we become human beings not human doings; we begin to appreciate the richness of life; we begin to make new and better choices. It isn’t forced. This ability arises quite spontaneously from our awareness, compassion, and stillness.



  1. Lucy

    This is one area where I have always struggled but the good part is that I never stopped trying to deal better with my negative feelings. It’s a great article and that has definitely given me a broader perspective of recognizing and understanding the source of my own negative feelings that bog me down time to time and I feel this is the beginning of tackling them better. Thank you Roger. Stay blessed 🙂

  2. Nanette Okoren

    I have learned while working in grief recovery groups that some of these behaviors we engage in to escape our emotions can be referred to as STERBS – short term energy releasing behaviors. Thank you for your thoughts. I agree completely!

    • Roger Allen

      We certainly want and even need ways to release our build up emotional energy although there are ways to go about it that are more helpful than others. I had not heard this acronym so appreciate your comment, Nanette. Roger


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