New research suggests a change in perspective could help us be less affected by difficult emotions
We’ve all had those moments, haven’t we? Moments when rage simmers below the surface, when anxiety fizzles in our fingers, when sadness pours out of our hearts. These emotions are typically cast in a negative light, they’re ‘bad’ and we should do what we can to avoid them.
It turns out, giving emotions a villain status could be doing us more harm than good. A new study published in the journal Emotion found that those who judge their negative emotions as ‘bad’ or ‘wrong’ tend to be less satisfied with life and have more anxiety and depression symptoms.
Adding to a growing body of research, this study highlights not only the impact of judging our emotions, but the damage suppressing our emotions can have.
When we judge our emotions and villianise them, we add more negative feelings on top. We might judge ourselves for feeling this way, starting a negative cycle of self-criticism. This can all lead to us ruminating on the negative emotion, even hours after it was first triggered. When we avoid or suppress our emotions, they can build up – often spilling out when we least expect it.
So what can we do instead?
Finding a way to be neutral about negative feelings could help, according to the researchers. Recognising that no emotion is inherently ‘good’ or ‘bad’ can be a helpful first step. Even the emotions we struggle with may be serving a purpose – for example, anxiety is often our mind's way of keeping us safe.
Getting curious about our emotions can help too. You might find it helpful to ask yourself some questions, such as:
- What am I feeling right now?
- What triggered this feeling?
- How is this feeling showing up in my body?
This curiosity can help us gain a little distance from the feeling. It may sound counterintuitive, but we can see a similar scenario playing out with mindfulness practice in those with chronic pain. Sometimes bringing our attention to the pain can help us feel more neutral towards it, and it seems this may be the case for both physical and emotional pain.
Not suppressing our emotions is another key point. The questions above can help with this, as can finding a way to express your emotions. Creative outlets like writing, painting or making music can help here, as can chatting things through with a friend.
“When you notice 'negative' feelings rising up inside of you, give them space and time to emerge.” Counsellor Emily Rowcliffe shares in their article, The positive power of negative thinking.
“Feel them. Express them authentically, in a way that doesn't seek to blame or shame another person. These emotions are as much a part of you as joy is – open your heart to their power.”
Here’s the thing… Often, when we’re able to get curious about the feeling, express it and validate it, it dissipates.
Of course, this isn’t always the case and there are important caveats to note here. For those with mood disorders and severe depression, for example, these techniques likely won’t be enough. In these cases, working with a professional and/or seeking support from a helpline like the Samaritans may be essential in helping you cope with difficult emotions.
For some of us, however, tweaking our perspective, showing ourselves some self-compassion and meeting our emotions with curiosity instead of judgement could go a long way in improving our wellbeing.