Accepting negative emotions and using them well
It was one of those days. One more cloudy, gloomy day that had Katrina wishing for spring. Her husband was thoughtful, and walked the dog before work – but he left his muddy shoes on when he came back in the house, leaving little puddles on the clean floor.
Was it really a good day to call the cable company? Last time she did, it took an hour and she wound up in tears of frustration. Katrina sat for a moment. How did she want this day to go?
Negative emotions can derail your day
Katrina’s negative emotions were starting to lead her into something called a shame spiral. “I’m so incompetent,” she thought, when she had written a check wrong. “Why can’t I pay attention?”
It didn’t occur to her to recall that she had been busy with Christmas and Kwanzaa preparations and caring for her 80-year-old father after his hernia surgery. “I must be losing it,” she thought. “I’m not as sharp as I was. I’m a screwup. Why do I try to do anything?” Now the day was in serious jeopardy.
Taking a pause: the first step
If you’ve ever been in a self-shaming spiral, you might recognize these signs. One thing goes wrong, you start blaming yourself, and in short order your life seems like a disaster.
Here’s where Katrina actually did something good for herself, though. She sat for a moment, and kept sitting, even when her thoughts started to spiral in an increasingly negative direction. A pause like this is the perfect time to consider how you would treat a friend with compassion. What would you tell someone who was feeling this frustrated and self-critical?
You might say, “Wait just a minute. So you wrote a check wrong? That hardly makes you a failure. I mean, how many checks do you really write any more, anyway? It’s practically a lost art! Don’t worry about it.”
Pausing and treating yourself with the same healing compassion you would show to a friend, family member, or even an upset acquaintance is one way to stop the spiral of shame.
Talk back to negative thoughts
Maria, who sometimes gets overwhelmed parenting her toddlers, has learned to talk back to negative and intrusive thoughts. When she experienced postpartum depression after the birth of her second son, those thoughts became very dark at times.
Now, instead of thinking, “I’m a bad mom,” or “The boys would be better off without me,” she uses positive affirmations. Her therapist helped her create a list of these, and she keeps copies posted on the fridge, tucked in her journal, and taped to the bathroom mirror. They include messages like, “I’m a good mom,” “My kids are happy and healthy,” and “There’s no such thing as a perfect family.”
Over time, the positive self-talk messages have begun to come more naturally, crowding out negativity. Kids crying at the same time? “I’m a good mom – kids get fussy.” Is the house messy? “The house is good enough for today.”
Shake – or walk, or wash – it off
Does Taylor Swift have all the answers? No, but her song “Shake It Off,” has one of them. The upbeat song describes knowing your strong points (“I’m lightning on my feet”) framing negativity as something outside yourself (“haters gonna hate”) and dancing to your own beat, literally and figuratively.
In fact dance, music, and other forms of body awareness can help you cope with negative feelings and self-shaming. How many times have you felt better after a hot shower, a walk, or an exercise class? There’s a reason angry and upset people say, “I need to get some fresh air.”
Moving our bodies and connecting with nature put us in touch with a world far bigger than our problems, even the ones that seem most overwhelming. For example, movement has been shown to be very helpful for people coping with cancer. We take in oxygen, increase blood circulation, and lower our levels of stress hormones when we go outside and walk, stretch, or just breathe.
Accept negative emotions, restructure your responses
Research tells us that denying and suppressing our negative emotions doesn’t help us cope with them – but accepting them can. Let’s go back to Katrina for a moment. Instead of “stuffing” her annoyance with her husband and his muddy shoes, she can say, “That really annoyed me! It feels like he doesn’t respect the time and effort it takes to clean this house.” Poof – negativity acknowledged. Now, she can make a simple request when the time is right, asking him to be more careful.
I hope you feel empowered to cope with some of the negative emotions, both internal and interpersonal, we all face at times. Both negative and positive emotions are natural parts of life. Creating whole person health that includes body, mind, and spirit wellness means using healthy aspects of ourselves to relieve suffering in other aspects at times.
Counting blessings or focusing on gratitude is one more response we can use when we feel negative emotions. Learn more here, for your better emotional health.