How to Navigate Your Negative Emotions Toward a Positive ResponseBy Homaira Kabir
Negative emotions are part of life—yet most of us try to bottle them up or shut them out. We label our emotions and wish them away. We judge ourselves for feeling negative and get caught up in secondary negative emotions as a result. Or we react to our emotions and engage in behaviors that don’t serve us well. Often, we do both.
We can also do the same to others. I know that for a long time, I would get quite visibly upset when my children were negative. I would force them to be happy, not realizing that I was actually making them as uncomfortable with negative emotions as I was myself. And then I would feel guilty about being upset, which invariably would lead to a downward spiral of feeling bad about myself. Many of us know this vicious cycle well.
The reality is that the way we feel about our emotions can have a profound impact on our reactions to them. When we label and judge our emotions, we unconsciously engage the sympathetic nervous system and see the negativity as threatening to us. We then either avoid the emotions altogether—the flight response—or we recruit the “seeking system” of the brain from a place of fear. This may mean distracting ourselves, engaging in addictive behaviors, or even taking part in compulsive activities.
In her book Emotional Agility, psychologist Susan David says that when we're present with all our emotions and can navigate them with curiosity and compassion, we're able to respond in ways that are aligned with our highest values. We're able to engage the seeking system toward our true aspirations for our lives.
If you find that your negative emotions can sometimes take on a life of their own, here's a two-pronged approach to show up with the best of yourself.
Calm the Emotion
Suppressing emotions doesn't work. Why? Because emotions are messengers from our inner world. When we're feeling negative, they are reminding us that something is wrong and that it needs our immediate attention. This doesn't mean that our inner world is necessarily correct—many of its fears are remnants of the past, or exaggerated predications of the future. But, like an upset child, it is crying out in fear, and ignoring it or