5 Ways to Deal With Feelings You'd Rather Not Feel
... and why one common approach often backfires.
Posted August 7, 2016 | Reviewed by Ekua Hagan
We have all experienced feelings that we did not wish to feel; we all know how painful it can be to dwell on these undesired feelings. According to the logic of critical feeling, there are at least five strategies at our disposal that help to get rid of such harmful experiences. But be warned: One of them may backfire.
1. Suppressing Feelings
The most obvious way to stop feelings is to suppress them. For example, if you feel fear that is unjustified, inappropriate, or embarrassing to reveal in a given situation, you may simply try not to experience this feeling or distract yourself in order to suppress it.
Interrupting undesired or inappropriate feelings has been seen as a virtue in societies that cherish self-control, such as 19th century Prussia or many East Asian cultures, as a means to achieve harmony.
Suppression of feelings is sometimes an efficient way to get rid of them. It is an effective way to alleviate grief and can help us overcome severe loss. In addition, suppression of emotional expression may help—via facial feedback—to weaken the experience of an emotion. However, suppression is a strategy that can backfire. It may reduce the expression of a negative emotion without reducing its experience. A boy who suppresses fear when being harassed by an older boy may not reveal his fear to the bully but he still experiences it.
Moreover, evidence shows that suppression of emotions can come at a cost. Thoughts about personal emotional events are more difficult and thus require more effort to suppress than thoughts about everyday events, so more self-control is needed to do this. An exercise of self-control often depletes our ability to pay attention, so suppressing undesired feelings may result in lower performance in subsequent tasks that involve thinking and learning.
There is ample evidence that suppressing thoughts can backfire because these thoughts bounce back after people suppress them. In a famous example, trying not to think of a white bear in the next five minutes by distracting ourselves makes the thought of the white bear more accessible in subsequent tasks. Trying to suppress stereotypes makes them more salient than not trying to suppress them at all.
Suppressing negative feelings, like suppressing thoughts, may backfire when we no longer control them. Higher levels of self-reported suppression of depressive thoughts over a four to six-week period were associated with a worsening of depressive symptoms. These findings—and many more—suggest that suppressing emotions is not only costly but ineffective.
Last, and most important, suppressing emotions is maladaptive because a repressive coping style increases stress and leads to health costs in the long run. Although suppressing feelings may be part of the arsenal of critical feeling, we have to apply this strategy with caution.
Timeouts are a popular means for parents to calm down children when they are angry or aggressive. For example, you tell your daughter to go to her room or another suitable place where she can be alone and stay there for five minutes. Timeouts interrupt the ongoing course of inappropriate action and cool down the hot feelings that cause it. The impact of timeouts fits well with the empirical observation that arousal due to an event declines over time. Although there is little research on timeouts, they seem to be a good option as a first response to fits of anger.
3. ‘Stop and Think’
Whereas timeouts rely on the effect of decreasing arousal as time passes by, so-called stop and think rules, already mentioned in John Dewey’s 1938 book Experience and Education, add a problem-solving step in which a person is instructed to think about the causes of the feeling. The idea of stop and think is that when “bad” feelings come up, a person has to stop spontaneous action and switch to analytical thinking. Many programs against aggression build on the idea that a person stops acting out the impulse and then thinks.
There are several possible outcomes of the thinking phase. First, like time-outs, thinking may take time and therefore simply calm down inappropriate feelings. Second, thinking about the situation and its affordances may replace feelings in guiding action. Finally, thinking about the causes of the feelings may lead to a reassessment of the situation. When we then stop instead of impulsively giving in to our feelings, we may think about how to reinterpret the situation and reappraise it.
People often become angry because they misunderstand another person’s intentions, only to find out that their anger was in vain. Feeling upset because someone bumped into you in a bus may change when you see that this happened without intention. Similarly, we may replace the fear of failure with hope by appraising the situation as a challenge where failure is no shame. Depressive thoughts may disappear if we try to see the world in a brighter light.
In short, different interpretations of events lead to different emotions. Appraising the situation in a new way does not suppress negative feelings, but supplants them with different, more positive feelings. Psychologist James Gross of Stanford and his colleagues provide evidence that reappraising situations resulted in less stress, as measured by activation of the sympathetic nervous system.
Employing critical feeling means looking at events from different angles in order to arrive at different potential explanations. For instance, if you feel despair because you fear you failed an exam, you may stop short the spontaneous resignation and come up with a different interpretation of the exam situation.
Reappraisal can be a powerful tool for critical feeling. A short intervention of 21 minutes to reappraise conflict has been shown to increase marital satisfaction during the following year. No wonder psychotherapists have begun to use reappraisal as a tool to change the thoughts of their clients to alleviate feelings that impede normal life and healthy psychological functioning.
Reappraisal is such a powerful method to alleviate inappropriate feelings that we may think that it is a ubiquitous strategy to keep negative emotions in check. Yet this is not true. A new study found that people reappraise a negative situation less often than one might expect. The reason is that doing nothing seemed to be the usual response, at least in the laboratory situation created by the researchers. It would be interesting to examine whether this observation can be replicated in daily life. If so, critical feeling would include overcoming the default option of doing nothing.
Individuals can combine a stop and think rule with reappraising the situation. Whereas the think part of the stop and think technique remains unspecified, the think part in reappraisal is specific in that people reinterpret the situation to change their emotions.
Emotions have specific action-tendencies, so a change of emotions through reappraisal is likely to change subsequent behavior. For example, an angry man tends to attack the source of his anger. When reappraisal alleviates anger, it also reduces his tendency to attack.
People are not only are aware of what they think but also can become aware that they think. This is meta-awareness.
If depressive patients think that they are worthless, they are aware of this thought, and they believe it. Depressive patients are often not able to decenter, or become aware of the fact that they think this thought, and that it is not necessarily reality.
Meta-awareness is similar to the stop and think technique in the sense that it stops impulsive thoughts and ruminations. Yet meta-awareness differs from the unspecific "stop and think" rule in that we reflect on the contents of our thoughts and feelings.
In contrast to reappraisals that change the interpretation of a situation, achieving meta-awareness by decentering helps us to see a thought as a thought.
There is certainly the potential of meta-awareness for different applications—for example, solving interpersonal conflict by becoming aware that you think of a person in a negative way; or when coping with negative feelings such as embarrassment, envy, or intense grief.
Finally, it would be interesting to explore the role of meta-awareness when it comes to temptations. Craving for chocolate may be taken as a fact — or it may be taken as my own thought. This may help distance ourselves from the craving that seems so real.
Reber, R. (2016). Critical feeling. How to use feelings strategically. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.