Learning How to Process Negative Emotions

A guide to understanding negative feelings and how to relate to them.

Posted Mar 29, 2019

As a clinician, I am asked all the time how to help folks deal more adaptively with their negative feelings. This is something I have written quite a bit about on Psychology Today, so I decided to post a guide to my writings. The basic principles to understand are (a) that you have a 'heart' that is feeling things in your body and a 'head' that is narrating things; (b) the relationship between these two domains of mind is crucial as is (c) how you try to manage your impressions to important others. The focus here will be on the relationship between your head (narrator) and heart (negative feelings). In other writings, I will share how this connects to a "false self" that tries to manage the impressions of others (but see here). 

The first key point is to understand how to process emotions in a healthy way. This is what I call the “Emotional Sweet Spot” (ESS) model of emotional functioning. The ESS refers to the "mental space" between being (a) aware and attuned to your feelings and (b) adaptively regulating them in accordance with your goals. Many people with emotional difficulties operate outside the sweet spot in that they try to critically control their feelings (which is the opposite of 'a') and then are triggered and overwhelmed (opposite of 'b'), which makes them want to control them even more, thus creating a vicious cycle.

The reason for the struggle is usually because the narrator portion of their mind (i.e., their head) believes that negative emotions are dangerous or a problem and must be controlled. This is a key error that many people make that leads to trouble down the line. Yes, emotions can be brutal and painful. But they are not your enemy. If you make them your enemy, you are engaging in a form of inner Emotional Warfare. The key is developing skills to allow you to regularly hold them in the Emotional Sweet Spot. Here is a blog on the ESS:

Finding Your Emotional Sweet Spot

For a somewhat more detailed explanation about emotions, see here:

Understanding Emotions and How to Process Them

Of course, holding negative emotions this way be difficult to do. Something that makes it particularly difficult is because people have a secondary negative reaction to their negative feelings. This is explained here:

Distress: It's Not the Negativity but Your Reaction to It

Fear and the Fear of Fear

Importantly, many people who struggle with these issues do so because their negative emotional system is much more active than others. This can be caused by many things, such as trauma, or fluctuating hormones. However, it is most commonly is caused by a combination of what is known as a “neurotic temperament" which is coupled with a coping style that tries to avoid and control one’s feelings. When stress is added to the mix, the result is not good. As such, it is crucial that we help folks understand what trait neuroticism is so they can see if this applies to them:

Trait Neuroticism and Depressive and Anxiety Disorders

We Should Embrace the Word "Neurotic"

Is all this background knowledge needed? Couldn't we just cut to the chase and develop strategies that reduce the feelings? That is the kind of thinking that is driving much of the problem. This is something that we need to attend to, and is not something that is a "quick fix". It involves fundamental changes in attitude, lifestyles, and core ways of being in relation, both to our feelings and one another. As such, a deeper understanding is a key part of the process.

That said, we of course also need to help folks learn to deal differently with their negative feelings. Depression and anxiety disorders are problems. Please notice the word learn here. It is NOT something that happens quickly but actually is a skill. One important avenue is improving one’s skills in being mindful. The approach I take is called CALM MO. It is a psychological approach rather than one that emphasizes meditation (although meditation can be very helpful). CALM MO involves developing a new "meta" perspective and mindset about emotions and how to relate to them. Instead of avoiding them, or trying to critically control negative feelings, the attitude that is cultivated is one that is Curious, Accepting, Loving/compassionate, and Motivated toward valued states of being. Here are some blogs on mindfulness in general and the CALM MO approach:

What is Mindfulness and How Does it Work?

On Developing a CALM MO

Turn your Critical and Controlling Inner Voice to a CALM MO

How to Metabolize Painful, Dark Emotions: A Letter

As someone who is also trained in traditional cognitive psychotherapy, I would like to note that it can also be helpful to monitor how you think about yourself and your situation, and to have the capacity to reflect on your thoughts, understand when they are rigid or extreme or unhelpful, catch those thoughts and then learn more adaptive, accurate and helpful ways of narrating what is going on:

How to Foster More Adaptive Thinking

Fundamentally, the point here is that feelings are a core part of life. And like much of what happens to us, our control over them is somewhat limited. Indeed, if our approach is to try and control, resist, attack or avoid our feelings, then trouble is likely to follow. Of course, people do this because they also are overloaded with feelings at times in ways that are not pleasant or adaptive. That is why we need to teach folks about the head/narrator and heart/feeling system and how to hold negative feelings in the Emotional Sweet Spot. To do so, we need help folks learn to build skills that allow for both the awareness and attunement to negative feelings and skills that allow for their adaptive regulation toward immediate and longer-term goals. CALM MO is one such approach that can guide folks to learn how to grow in an adaptive way.

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