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What You Should Do with Your Negative Emotions

Steps for handling the flood of negativity

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Stress, cynicism, resentment, embarrassment, anger, guilt, heartache, and fear all have one thing in common – they don’t feel good. My clients often ask me what they should do when these negative emotions show up and take over.

My first answer is, "Don’t try to make yourself feel better." All of your emotions, including what you call negative emotions, have something important to tell you. I'll tell you how to find the message in your emotions in step three, but please don’t skip the first two steps. The worst thing you can do is to ignore, stuff, or try to beat your emotions into submission.

For a moment, let your emotions just be there. Then,

Step one: Exhale.

Before you do anything else, you need to clear your head and release the tension that is keeping your emotions in place. Take in and release three deep breaths, breathing in more deeply each time. As you exhale, notice places in your body where you might be holding tension, from your face and jaw through your shoulders and neck on down to your toes. Release the tension as you breathe out.

Step two: Accept your discomfort as a sign that you are real, whole, and alive.

Alan Watts, author of The Book: On the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are, says the more you try to disown your shadow, the more you become it. Your existence includes the whole of you, not the parts. Uncertainty, misery, and the fear of rejection comes from learning new things, caring for others, and stepping into the dance of life. No matter what you do, you will experience emotions that do not feel good. If you ignore your emotions, they will impact your happiness anyway. You need to be present to what you are experiencing now to glean the wisdom the moment can give you.

Watts said, “Unless one is able to live fully in the present, the future is a hoax… When your plans mature, you will still be living for some other future beyond.” You will never feel content with what you have and who you are if you cannot appreciate your current state no matter what you are experiencing. When you shut down or ignore a part of your existence, you shut down part of yourself. You disconnect and go through the motions of your busy, out-of-touch life.

Life is ever-elusive, ever disappointing AND it is ever fascinating, nurturing,and beautiful. After you breathe three times, say to yourself, “I am experiencing my life. I am open to discovering what my emotions are trying to tell me.” Take in a full breath of life and let it sit there for a moment as you move to the next step.

Step three: Be curious.

Most emotions are reactions to what you imagined this moment should be. They represent either unmet expectations or fears that you will not get what you need. Be curious about what is missing for you.

Curiosity is the most underrated emotion. It is not taught as a positive emotional state. Be interested in what is occurring in your brain and body instead of brooding on what you think is right or wrong. Socrates said, "The wisdom begins in wonder."

Breathe, feel curious, and ask yourself what you didn’t get that you thought you would, including intangibles such as love, recognition, and perceived success. Acknowledge what you are feeling and try to determine why by saying, “I’m sad because…. I’m grieving because… I’m disappointed, hurt, and resentful because…” Understanding what triggered your emotions will give you insights on what you need to do next. The painful energy will dissipate.

Curiosity can also help you change your habits. In his 2015 TED talk, Psychiatrist Judson Brewer described how stopping to notice and be curious about why you are choosing to do something and what else you could choose to do can lead to long-term change.

Step four: Notice the world around you.

See where you are, what you have, what you love, and what is good. Let this realization sit with your other emotions as a part of the harmonious interplay of life. Balance gratitude with sadness and the fear of the unknown; compassion with frustration and disappointment; hope with resentment; passion with anger; self-forgiveness with jealousy; and faith with loss. Humans have the wonderful capacity to feel more than one thing at a time. Center yourself in the swirl of life and you can come to appreciate all life has to offer.

You cannot feel the great joys of life without feeling the things that weigh you down. The brain has an on-off switch. You can't turn off some emotions without weakening your ability to feel passion and love. You become numb with age, missing the “wows” and “ahs” of life.

Accept who you are in both light and shadow so you don’t miss a moment of your precious existence. Every emotion offers a bit of wisdom you can take with you on your journey.


Marcia Reynolds, PsyD, trains and coaches clients to have more meaningful moments and conversations by being the master, not victim, of their brains. She has written three books that go deeper into her work, The Discomfort Zone, Wander Woman, and Outsmart Your Brain. Read more at

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