Have you ever had a very negative emotional outburst? I don’t mean that you were irritated or that you got a little teary-eyed; I mean you were unloading both barrels at somebody over a minor annoyance or you broke down sobbing over something somewhat disappointing. What is often more surprising than the sudden occurrence of these negative emotions is the intensity with which they appear. Let’s talk about where these emotions are coming from and why you may be feeling them so intensely.
You’re not feeling the right emotion
There are four basic, negative emotions:
When information hits your brain, the first response is an emotional one. You have no control over this. The electrical impulses in your brain literally have to pass through the area responsible for basic emotions before they can reach the rational, high-level area. You can’t control this process, but you can decide how you react to it.
This is where you may be getting it wrong.
You suppress this negative emotional reaction to the situation because you don’t like it. The feeling is unpleasant so you cram it back down into the deeper part of your brain and tell yourself, “I’m not going to feel that. I shouldn’t feel that way.”
This may go on for a while, but eventually, you have an emotional “accident.” You lose control as the emotional area of your brain pulls the emergency lever. You may feel betrayed by yourself and thoroughly embarrassed.
This is what happens when you don’t feel right
I have had plenty of these emotional “accidents.”
I had a job for over a year that I was very unhappy with. I would sit at my desk every day and feel truly ill. I was very depressed. Everything about the job seemed to make me feel negative. Some days I would just stare out the window and wonder how difficult it would be to throw myself through the glass and plummet to the ground below just to make the pain stop.
This went on for months. Until, one day, I had an “accident.” I suddenly couldn’t deal with it anymore. I dropped what I was doing, bolted outside, and sobbed off in the bushes where nobody would see me. I mean, it was uncontrollable weeping. The kind where you have streams of tears and your body is heaving from the overwhelming onslaught of sadness. The worst part was that I had called somebody on the phone to talk about it and now I had an audience for this “accident.” A trickle of emotion turned into a flood. I felt so embarrassed.
This episode ends with the person on the phone calming me down and encouraging me not to quit my job then and there. I tell my boss I don’t feel well and go home and cry some more.
What the hell happened?
Sadness happened. Lots of it.
I thought I had been feeling shame all those months. I thought I felt shame that I wasn’t more positive at work all those months. I thought I should just be grateful to have a good paying job. I shouldn’t be so ungrateful and discontent. The emotion that really wanted out was sadness.
Big boys don’t cry. At least that is what I was taught. So I suppressed the daily sadness I felt, and I wouldn’t allow myself to feel the right emotion.
Give yourself permission to feel
How do you prevent this?
Give yourself permission to feel a negative emotion authentically.
You have expectations of your own behavior. These may come from your personal values or they may have been placed on you by others.
You may have grown up in a religious environment where it was expected that you should never feel fear or anxiety. Perhaps this message was put on you (with the best of intentions) and you have now incorporated it into your own value system. Now, when you feel fear, your reaction is to reject that emotion. Your expectation is that you should not be feeling fear, so you suppress it. Then, like some twisted game of whack-a-mole, your negative emotion finds another means of expression.
Maybe instead of allowing yourself to be afraid you instead express your fear through shame. You feel ashamed that you have felt fear or anxiety over something when you believe that you shouldn’t. What a transformation! The negative emotion has not been suppressed, it just found another outlet through shame.
You have a preferred negative emotion that you use when you don’t give yourself permission to feel another. Sometimes the intensity of an emotion makes you squirm, so you then retreat to your preferred emotion because it is familiar to you. It is a quick and easy way to deal with the emotion in the moment, but now you can’t process it authentically. Your emotions build beneath the surface until they suddenly explode in an area that you did not expect.
My preferred negative emotion is shame. Any negativity I feel tends to manifest itself as depression to one degree or another. I have had expectations that I should not be feeling most negative emotions, but shame was an emotion that I gave myself permission to express. Discovering this dynamic within myself and beginning to loosen the restraints I had placed on my other negative emotions has allowed me to feel the emotions I am really experiencing and learn how to process them.
Let the emotion happen
What can you do?
When you feel a negative emotion, let yourself experience it. Don’t try to suppress it.
Take notice of how you initially react to that negative emotion. What judgment do you pass on it? Is your reaction, “I shouldn’t be feeling this way”?
Ease off of that judgment and relax your expectations for a few minutes. If it is sadness, then don’t try to push it back down. Allow yourself to be sad for 10 minutes. Go somewhere private if you need to. Just let yourself experience the sadness. If you normally suppress this emotion, then the intensity of it will probably make you very uncomfortable.
Your ability to process emotions is like a muscle and this one is weak. You need to give it some exercise and try to spend a few minutes authentically feeling it.
After 10 minutes of permission, relax that emotional muscle and allow yourself to go back to your preferred emotional expression if you need to. After feeling the emotion authentically for a few minutes, you may not need to use your preferred negative emotion at all!
This will be hard, but as you give yourself permission to express this emotion you will eventually learn strategies for dealing with it. If you don’t let yourself express the emotion, then you won’t have methods of processing it. This will take time. Reach out to friends who you know deal with this negative emotion in a positive way and ask them for help.
It ain’t easy
I am learning how to express anger. I have suppressed this emotion for years and making an effort to express it authentically is difficult. The intensity makes me uncomfortable, but I try to let the emotion run its course. Sometimes I take a walk around the neighborhood to let myself fume about whatever has made me angry. Sometimes I’ll call up a friend and rant and rave about whatever is bothering me. Frankly, I find this embarrassing because I have not allowed myself to feel anger authentically so I feel a certain level of shame (my preferred expression) by letting other people see me angry. It is not easy, but only by allowing myself to feel angry do I start to develop ways of authentically processing this emotion.
But you can do it
Emotions are not easy to handle. Most of us take the easy route of suppressing our negative emotions and using damaging coping mechanisms to treat the symptoms of our preferred emotion. Now that you know what is happening you can start to exercise your other emotions and learn how to handle them authentically.
What self-expectations do you hold which are preventing you from feeling an emotion authentically? Let me know what you think in the comments below and sign up for email updates so we can continue the conversation! 🙂