by Dennis Bradford
in emotional well-being
Dissolving Negative Emotions in 7 Steps
Negative emotions are normal. There’s nothing wrong with you if you sometimes find yourself overwhelmed by grief, anger, fear, lust, or other powerful passions.
What’s not normal is being able to dissolve them effectively. If you learn how to do that, you’ll have learned one of the most important skills required for living well (mastering life, being wise). That learning requires understanding and practice. You can gain the understanding reading this right now, but the practicing will be up to you.
Suppose that one of the many powerful negative emotions is troubling you. What should you do? I recommend that you follow the following 7 steps for dealing with negative emotions.
First, accept full responsibility for your situation. No event or no other person is able to affect you emotionally without your consent. It’s impossible. Even though it was not intentional, you have put yourself in this position. That’s the bad news.
The reason for this comes from the nature of emotions, which have three parts. (1) There is a judgment about some situation, for example, my lover left me or my child died. (2) There is an evaluation in which you relate the situation to yourself either positively or negatively. You think either “this is bad for me” or “this is good for me.” Of course, it’s only the former ones that cause suffering from negative emotions. (3) There are bodily changes that occur as a result; you experience various sensations or feelings such as a burning sensation in your stomach or a feeling of tightness in your throat. (For more on the nature of negative emotions, see my HOW TO SURVIVE COLLEGE EMOTIONALLY.)
The good news is that, since you got yourself into it, you have the potential to get yourself out of it.
Second, identify the most troubling emotion.
This is not always easy to do. Frequently, two emotions can become linked. For example, fear often precedes and follows anger. In fact, emotions only infrequently occur one at a time. Passions can alternate in rapid sequence, and they can even blend together. Furthermore, one can stimulate another as when you become angry at yourself for, say, becoming afraid.
Third, identify what triggered that emotion.
This, too, is not always easy to do. Emotional responses that you learned during your life become involuntary. They can be so automatic that they are very difficult to notice. This is why the next step is important.
Fourth, keep a written log about the negative emotions that are most troubling you.
With respect to the most troublesome one, what, exactly, was the judgment that you made? Which evaluation did you make? Exactly how did you feel as a result? What exactly are you saying to yourself about it right now?
Fifth, question the evaluation.
The fact is that, like the rest of us, you don’t know the future. The future consequences of the event that triggered your response are unknown.
How many times in the past has something happened that, although you thought at the time was good, turned out later to have very bad consequences? How many times in the past has something happened that, although you thought at the time was bad, turned out later to have very good consequences?
Questioning your evaluation in this way automatically weakens it. If the passion isn’t too powerful, just this improved understanding may be sufficient to enable you to let it go. If not, go on to the next step.
Sixth, attack negative emotions indirectly.
There are three ways to do this.
(i) The first is simply to use a breathing exercise. I have elsewhere (both on line at my free, lasting-weight-loss website and off line) explained exactly how to do this. I recommend practicing it twice daily. Each session can be as short as 90 seconds! Believe it or not, if you have developed that habit, 90 seconds may be all it takes to let a troubling emotion go! This is an easy, surprisingly helpful habit. However, by itself, it won’t work for the most troublesome negative emotions.
(ii) The second is to go for a brisk walk for half an hour or so. I have explained (on line at my free, lasting-weight-loss website) exactly how to do this. Of course, some people may not be able to do it, while others may prefer to substitute some other fitness exercise. Of course, regular fitness exercise is a very beneficial habit for a host of reasons. Still, it won’t work for the most troublesome passions.
(iii) The third way is by using zazen meditation (or some similar spiritual practice). Three great advantages that zazen meditation has over any other kind of spiritual practice is that it is the simplest, it is the easiest to learn, and it requires that you belief nothing except that it might work. (In other words, you don’t have to buy into a whole creed to use it.) If you master zazen meditation sufficiently, it will work for any troublesome passion–and it will work quickly, within hours or, at most, days. I have elsewhere (both on line at my free, lasting-weight-loss website and off line) explained exactly how to do it.
This is the middle way of dealing with emotions. It’s between the two counter-productive extremes of venting and ignoring. It involves acknowledging the reality of a passion, which is wise because it avoids trying to ignore something that is an important part of your life, and it involves failing to act with that passion as a motivation, which is wise because it avoids perpetuating and possibly strengthening the passion.
If (i) or (ii) don’t work for you in a particular case and you have yet to get very far with zazen meditation, go on to the next step.
Seventh, seek counsel from a sage.
Sadly, because sages are few and far between, this is not easy to do.
Though it’s rather popular and does help some people to some degree, in my judgment psychotherapy is of limited value. You might try behavior therapy or neurolinguistic programming.
You might know a wise person willing to befriend you. Perhaps there is a qualified zen master or other spiritual leader willing to help.
Avoid thinking, though, that there is a quick, magical cure. There isn’t. Before you despair, however, I remind you of the first step: since you created your own suffering, you have the potential to end it. Furthermore, once you teach yourself how to end it, you have the opportunity to make the practice that worked for you a habit. Once you make it a habit, from an emotional perspective, the rest of your life will be better than your life has been until now!
That hope itself may enable you to survive some very dark nights.
I wish you well.
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