I had this thought for most of my life.
A thought that seemed innocuous, but really kept me from connecting with myself and others. The thought was that I should ignore my negative emotions.
I can remember so many times being bothered by something Rich said or did and consciously telling myself, “Just ignore it. Let it go. Don’t think about it. Nothing’s wrong. La la la la la.”
Now, when I’m bothered by Rich it is more a reflection of what is going on with me and my head than whatever it was he did or said, so it IS a good idea not to dwell on the circumstance or incident that bothered me.
What isn’t a good idea is stuffing down and avoiding my negative emotion. This is an important distinction between frustrating circumstance and our feeling about the circumstance – we should always deal with our feelings, but not every circumstance requires action.
I used to think that ignoring or avoiding my own feelings of annoyance, frustration, and anger was what being a “good person” looked like, a Christ-like person even.
But this way of thinking has some major negative side effects. Namely, when I ignore my negative emotion, it never goes away. Whenever that inciting annoying incident occurs again- here’s that negative feeling popping up again, only stronger this time. And ugh, the circumstance is just so annoying, now I’m snapping at my kids, at my husband, at myself.
Ignoring negative emotion parades around like its the nobler thing to do, but all avoiding negative emotion really does is just hold it’s power over us. When we are able to confront and FEEL our feelings of disappointment, anger, or sadness, they release their hold on us.
THE COST OF AVOIDING OUR NEGATIVE EMOTIONS
We can (and often do) spend our lives running and hiding from disappointment, self-doubt, loneliness and anger, but this chase will leave us empty, numb and disconnected.
When we stop and think about it, it is CRAZY the lengths we go to in order to avoid feeling our feelings. And at what cost?!
– We want to avoid feeling embarrassed, so we keep our thoughts and feelings to ourselves.
– We want to avoid feeling awkward and saying the wrong thing, so we keep quiet when our friends experience tragedy.
– We want to avoid feeling lonely, so we eat.
– We want to avoid feeling stressed, so we turn to our phones to distract us again, again, again.
– We want to avoid feeling disappointed in ourselves, so we don’t set goals.
– We want to avoid feeling rejected, so we don’t branch out and try to make new friends.
– We want to avoid feeling shame, so we never confront our own imperfections and work on them.
– We want to avoid the discomfort of displeasing our spouse, so we avoid bringing up hard conversations that would ultimately make our marriages better.
Is this blowing your mind? So many lost opportunities and growth all for the avoidance of feelings!
The cost of avoiding negative feelings is high indeed my friends. Too high! And in the world’s biggest paradox, the avoidance of negative emotion is actually CAUSING us MORE negative emotion.
I catch myself doing this all the time in my parenting. I want to avoid MY KIDS’ negative emotions so I give into their tantrums and whining. I think, “Ugh, I don’t want to hear my kids whine at dinner over trying new foods, so I’ll stick to the same old ones.” “My son could totally put on his own shoes and zip up his coat, but I don’t want to deal with him crying about it, so I’ll do it.” “My daughter might be sad to miss out on this activity that we’re too busy to go to, but I would hate for her to be sad.”
And what’s worse, I often teach them the very numbing and distracting techniques I’m trying to avoid. “Aw, you’re sad? Here’s some fruit snacks.” “Aw, you’re feeling upset? Here, why don’t you watch a show.” Instead of “Aw, you’re sad? Need a hug?” “You’re upset? Want to talk about it?”
(Disclaimer: the very last thing I want to do here is add to mom-guilt (enough of that already! everyone is doing great!))
I find myself fearing my kids negative emotions so much that I stymie their growth along with my own. All for just silly old feelings! I keep forgetting that the worst that can happen is negative feelings. And oh yeah, I can feel negative feelings.
Friends, the world needs YOU and all you have to offer. And in order to offer your gifts, you need to get good and comfortable with negative emotion. In order for our kids to offer the world all they can, they need to get comfortable with negative emotion.
Not only the world at large, but YOU need you! Your kids need you and your spouse needs you.
Let’s stop letting the fear of feelings stop us from courageously being our best selves.
4 WAYS TO EMBRACE OUR NEGATIVE EMOTIONS:
1. Remind yourself: this feeling is not a problem.
To feel angry, lonely, and bored is to be human. These feelings will happen to all of us. What do we do when they come? Most of us MAKE it a BIG problem. We make our anger mean, “Oh no, everything is wrong! This isn’t fair! Everything is bad!” We make our loneliness mean, “Something is wrong with me.” We make our boredom mean, “I need to feel better- where’s a quick fix?”
Instead of making our negative feelings mean something more than they need to, try thinking, “This feeling isn’t a problem” instead. I’m feeling upset? Yeah that happens, not a problem, let’s deal with the issue at hand with peace of heart. I’m feeling lonely? Yeah that happens, not a problem. Why not call a friend? I’m feeling bored? Yeah that happens, not a problem, let’s just be bored!
And then, AND THEN! Extend this grace to your spouse. My spouse is feeling upset? Yeah that happens, I wonder why?
Try this one on guys, it is powerful!
2. Open the door and let the feeling wash over you.
So often when negative emotions rear their head, our knee-jerk reaction is to SHUT THE DOOR on them immediately and without thinking.
“Just ignore it. Don’t think about it. La la la la la la.”
Instead, I’ve been trying out OPENING THE DOOR to my negative emotions with much better success.
When I feel overwhelmed, instead of reaching for a handful of chocolate chips (I swear my feelings sprout legs and walk themselves over to the treat cabinet without my brain even showing up), I try take some deep breaths, open the door to feeling overwhelmed and let those feelings wash over me for a few seconds.
When I feel upset with Rich, instead of trying to force myself to ignore my feelings, I think, “Oh, I’m upset.” I take some deep breaths, open the door to feeling upset and let those feelings wash over me.
I ALWAYS feel so much better after I do this. If you take this on, one important tip: DO NOT JUDGE YOURSELF FOR YOUR FEELINGS! You are human. As a human, you have feelings, it is part of the package.
Think of what to do with your frustrating circumstance in a minute, for now, breathe, open the door and let those feelings flow through your body.
3. Get curious- how does the feeling feel in your body?
Warning: if you’ve never done this, this tip may sound like hippie-dippie nonsense, but don’t knock it till you try it!
As you are letting your jealousy, self-doubt or apathy flow through you, take note- what does it feel like?
When I am feeling anxious about what others will think of me, my body feels all jittery, I look around a lot and want to do something with my hands. My heart starts to beat on overdrive.
When I feel worried for someone I love, it feels like my heart is constricted. My chest gets all tight, my shoulders want to slump in. I feel like groaning.
When I feel annoyed at someone, I can’t look at them. My brain aches for a distraction. My head gets hot.
It is important to get curious and notice what is happening in our bodies when negative emotion strikes because the more you do, the less afraid of that feeling you become.
Now, when I feel that jittery, heart-quickening anxiety of pleasing others, I think, “Oh yeah, this. This feels familiar. Hello anxiety.”
When I feel my heart is constricting and tight, I think, “Oh yeah, this. Hello worry. Sit with me for a minute.”
When my head gets hot I think, “Oh yeah this again. Hello annoyance. Welcome.”
As I notice my feelings and welcome them, they lose their power.
Give your feelings a name, acknowledge them, get comfortable with them and you won’t unconsciously reach for detrimental distracting or numbing techniques nearly so often.
4. Be unwavering in your compassion toward yourself
In my on-going quest to be a better human being, it is so easy to get down on myself for my own feelings.
I feel intense frustration at my kids? Good people don’t do that!
I feel like rolling my eyes and plugging my ears at someone’s comment at church? Good people certainly don’t do that!
I feel judgmental toward my spouse? Good spouses don’t do that!! (do they? (yes sometimes they do))
Guys, these lies enter our heads without us ever questioning them! Question them!
Remember, we are human. As humans, we have feelings, it is part of the package.
Be unwaveringly kind to yourself as you notice and embrace your negative emotions.
The best way to do this, is just to take on the role of a curious observer. I’m feeling upset? Interesting. How do I feel exactly? I wonder what caused this? Hm, interesting.
Yes situations need to be dealt with, of course, but it is a million times better (and more effective!) to deal with difficult situations with peace in our hearts than from a place of anger, bitterness, jealousy, or disappointment.
Deal with feelings first, deal with situations second (such a good marriage tip!!)
And deal with feelings AND situations with boundless, courageous self-compassion.
I hope you’ll experiment with this one lab-mates. Opening the door to our all of our emotions instead of shutting them out is a better way to live.