Want to Feel Better? Face Your Negative Feelings

Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

Daily stress and adversity, by their very nature, result in what we consider to be negative emotions. The greater the stressor, the bigger our emotions. Think about it. We wouldn’t call something stressful or traumatic or a hardship if it didn’t impact our feelings. In fact, we know we’re experiencing stress because of what we feel. So, being able to regulate what we feel is such an important part of managing stress and building resilience.

A Painful, Personal Example

For example, have you ever received negative feedback from your boss or even a co-worker? What did you feel? I recall a consulting engagement with a major beverage manufacturing company. I’d done work with this team, previously, and it had gone very well and they had me back. In this new engagement I was going to be teaching them skills in interpersonal communication but the director who hired me was extremely critical of the way I started the meeting. He fired me the first evening, on the spot. As he began giving me feedback in front of his team, I felt anxious and embarrassed and the night ended with me going alone to my hotel room where I felt not only embarrassed but regretful and even inadequate. This was a traumatic event in my consulting career. It was traumatic because of how I felt.

The truth is that stress and adversity, by their very nature, bring up deep and unpleasant feelings, feelings that we’d prefer to avoid. That’s why it’s called stress and adversity, right, because of how it makes us feel.

If you’ve been reading me the last few months, think about how my friend Jim felt when he found himself on his face in the mud, not able to move any part of his body? Or, what was it like for my cousin Chris to realize she was destined to care, daily, for both her son and husband?

What about You?

Or suppose you learn that you’ve been passed over for a promotion. Or worse yet, you’ve been laid off! Or you’ve been sexually abused. Or lived through a tornado. Or you learn that your teenager is in trouble with the law. Or, you recognize that your children are demanding and they’re going to be with you for a long time. Or, you are living hand to mouth and can’t figure out a way to get a better job. Or you recognize that you worry almost nonstop about the state of the world.

Feelings are inevitably a consequence of such adverse circumstances and so a huge part of building resilience and growing in emotional maturity is being able to deal with the unpleasant, even overwhelming emotions that an event or circumstance can bring up in you.

Now I want to say that all emotions, even those we loathe, are good. They have a place. They’re part of the tapestry of our lives. How would we know joy without sorrow or confidence without doubt and inadequacy? Plus, our emotions alert us to what is going on and offer clues about how we need to respond. We can learn from all our emotions. But the problem is when we lack awareness of our emotions or allow them to overwhelm us so that we become emotionally dysregulated. They start to control us rather than us controlling them.

Four Step Process

So, I want to suggest that it’s important to honor your feelings. As you honor rather than avoid them, you learn to regulate them. And as you get better at the steps, you’re learning to act on your emotions rather than act them out.

Step One: Recognize your feelings.

If you’re only vaguely aware of your feelings then you have literally abdicated power to them and, therefore, you’ll either act them out or find ways to distract yourself from feeling them. Either response is harmful in the long run and prevents you from growing emotionally.

Unfortunately, most of us aren’t very emotionally aware. As uncomfortable feelings come up (anxiety, irritation, jealousy, despair, and so on), we 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, or even using drugs and alcohol to numb our feelings. Although we don’t always associate such activities with emotional distress, I want to suggest that we often use them to dull our awareness and distract us from what we feel.

My point is not that all of the above-mentioned behaviors are always a cover-up of deeper feelings. My point is that we would do well to wake up, to become more conscious of our feelings and how they drive our behavior. This is at the heart of building resilience as well as managing stress.

Step Two: Name Your Feelings

Can you put a name or label on your feelings? Psychologists have a popular saying, “If you can name it, you can tame it.” By naming a feeling you become smarter about what the feeling is communicating and, therefore, what actions you can take to tame or resolve it. We so often use the same broad labels for our feelings—fear, sadness, anger, and happiness. These are good labels and yet miss the important nuances of our feelings. There are lots of words related to fear such as apprehension, nervousness, dread, panic, trepidation, insecurity, anxiety, vulnerability, overwhelmed, and so on. Likewise for anger, sadness, as well as joy. For this reason, you might want to download a feelings chart to help you identify what you’re feeling. Use it whenever you’re having trouble identifying what you’re feeling.

Step Three: Allow or even Befriend Your Feelings

This is a scary step for a lot of people. We want to resist our feelings thinking that they are bad or make us bad or that if we ignore them, they’ll go away. But they don’t. Ironically, the more you deny your unpleasant feelings, the more you empower them to come out in the form of illness or reactive, dysfunctional behaviors.

So, allowing them means that you turn towards them rather than away. As you do this, you let them emerge. Sit with them. Lean into them. I’m not asking you to indulge them or act on them. Just notice them and give them space to be. Psychologists also say, “If you can feel it, you can heal it.” As you become a non-judgmental observer of what you feel you’ll notice that, like the waves of the sea, they flow in and then they flow out. As you can just be with them and observe them, they will flow back out. Their intensity will dissipate.

Step Four: Calm your Feelings

I like an analogy from Thich Nhat Hanh in his book, Peace is Every Step (p.54). He talks about calming your feelings like a mother tenderly holding her crying baby. Feeling his mother’s tenderness, the baby will calm down and stop crying. So rather than distancing from your feelings, imagine being totally present with them, holding them and caressing them as you would a little baby.

Another way to calm your feelings is to speak softly to them. “It’s okay. I accept you. You belong. I’m here for you. It’s not your fault. Trust in your goodness.”

Besides kind words, many people calm their feelings and find healing by gently placing a hand on the heart or cheek; or by envisioning being bathed in or embraced by warm, radiant light. If it feels difficult to offer yourself love, bring to mind a loving being—spiritual figure, family member, friend or pet—and imagine that being’s love and wisdom flowing into you.

And Now Be Present

Once you’ve gone through these four steps, take a moment to notice the quality of your own presence. Rest in the quietness of your inner wisdom.

So remember the four steps: Recognize, Name, Allow and Calm. Recognize, Name, Allow, and Calm. Memorize these steps so you can draw upon them when strong feelings are coming up. The purpose of the steps is to become more emotionally intelligent, to get in touch with your wise mind or inner wisdom. You’re no longer letting the downstairs brain control you. You’re recognizing the ebb and flow of your emotions from a place of compassion and non-judgment so that your downstairs brain informs but does not drive your behavior.

 


About Roger K. Allen
Roger K. Allen, Ph.D. is an expert in personal transformation and family development. His tools and methods have helped tens of thousands of people live happier and more effective lives. To learn more, visit www.rogerkallen.com>.

6 responses to “Want to Feel Better? Face Your Negative Feelings”

  1. Youcef says:

    Your approach to befriending feelings is brilliant! It makes managing them so much less scary. Instead of fighting them, I’m learning to understand them. Thank you!

    Btw I’ve sent you a message on your Facebook account

    • Roger Allen says:

      Thanks Youcef. Yes, befriending them works. It doesn’t mean we always feel better immediately. But as we learn to befriend them we learn that we are bigger than our feelings. As we become more comfortable with feeling whatever is coming up we know of our innate wholeness and strength.

  2. Bluchai says:

    The few, very few times I have been able to do this, I have emerged on the other side of the negative feeling as the person I always wanted to be. I feel mature and optimistic and capable of dealing with all that comes my way.
    Facing reality cannot be emphasized enough.
    The reward is greater than any fleeting and superficial happiness. I do hope to be able to make this just a natural process. If this is not taught to you from a young age, it is a mountain of a job to do alone at an older age.

    • Roger Allen says:

      Thank you for your comment, Bluchai. I love that you came out on the other side feeling mature, optimistic and confident. That is my experience as well. So true that we don’t teach this at a young age and some never discover the power of facing reality and allowing their negative feelings to emerge. Our negative feelings tend to frighten us and so we avoid them. It would be easier to learn when we’re young.

  3. Noreen says:

    This is such a comforting read, Dr Allen. I will share this with my husband and children. Very helpful for my pastoral care ministry, too.

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