The Best Way to Process Negative Feelings

Be aware and attuned and then adaptively regulate your negative feelings.

Posted Apr 14, 2020

 Below are some useful CBT-oriented guides on adaptively processing negative emotions. The Road to Resilience is from Don Meichenbaum. Coping with Fear and Sadness During a Pandemic is from William Sanderson. Good to see folks releasing these for general use.

Also, standing as we do from the vantage point of the Unified Framework, we should be very clear that there is now massive consensus across the various evidence-based paradigms on how to functionally metabolize difficult feelings.

I think the fundamental findings can be summarized in the images below. The first shows the neurotic loop process, whereby people have negative reactions to their negative feelings and try to avoid or fight them back. This creates an intrapsychic battle or fragmentation.

Gregg Henriques
Source: Gregg Henriques

Note that the reason for the negative reaction to negative feelings makes sense. Negative feelings both hurt and they often prime primitive and problematic reactions; reactions that others will judge negatively. But fear/avoidance or fighting to control one’s negative feelings fractures the mind and makes one vulnerable to neurotic loops. It also sets the stage for the system to be overwhelmed by negative feelings as they build. As such, when they crest into a wave that cannot be contained, they maladaptively crash over everything (i.e., people panic, get enraged or shut down into a depressive state, which tends to cause problems and thus confirm the fear that the negative feelings are in fact “bad”).

Gregg Henriques
Source: Gregg Henriques

This second image shows the solution. It conveys the fact that we need to train people to hold emotions in the sweet spot of awareness and attunement on the one hand and adaptive regulation on the other. The way that is done is via a reflective/responsive psychological mindful attitude that is curious, accepting, loving/compassionate, and motivated toward valued states of being in the short and long term. That is represented by the CALM-MO flashlight.

I think we are at a stage where we can say that this formulation is now known by human psychological science (i.e., theory, research, and practice converge on it). As such, we have to figure out how to consolidate this information and get it out to people and show them how it works. And we need to develop the best pedagogical tools and relational environments that foster healthy socio-emotional processes. I am more convinced than ever that we should not think of this in terms of one-on-one psychotherapy, but rather consider it the task of “egos/selves,” partnerships, families, schools, and communities.  

 This post is adapted from a letter the author sent to a Theory of Knowledge Society list-serve.

 If you are interested in a longer treatment of learning how to process negative feelings see here