The world of self-development and positive thinking makes it easy to be disdainful of ‘negative’ emotions but lately I’ve come to think of them a little differently.
Did you know that without emotions, you’d struggle to make any decisions? Even choosing a sandwich filling would be difficult!
Emotions provide ‘towards’ or ‘away from’ signals to help us figure out what to do. Alongside sight, hearing, taste, touch and smell, emotions provide information that motivates our decisions and behaviour. They help us take advantage of rewards and steer us away from threats – as determined by our instincts, values, beliefs and experiences. Without them, we’d struggle to do anything at all.
Of course, they can cause a lot of trouble for us when they fire in ways that hold us back. In these situations, our instincts often lead us to judge, fight or squash the emotions but this generally makes things worse.
Another approach – Respect
Have you ever been treated badly by someone – maybe at work or during a breakup – and then, when you tried to talk to them about it, they ignored you or suggested you were being unreasonable?
How did their treatment of you affect what you did next?
In my case, being ignored or belittled always made things worse. I got more petulant and became the worst version of myself.
I think the same thing happens with emotions. I don’t think our big bad emotions started out that way. I think they became so after years of being ignored, belittled or explained away. Going back to the chimp model from last week – treating the chimp with disrespect or disdain only serves to make it louder and more aggressive.
What does respect for emotions look like?
1. Identify the value – even when it’s counter intuitive
Last week, I wrote about the difference between emotions and feelings. Emotions kick up instantly when a threat or reward is detected – based partly on instinct and partly on your beliefs, values and experiences. They ALWAYS kick up for a reason – even if the reason is counter-intuitive or no longer valid.
An example from my own life comes from my various attempts to cut alcohol or sugar over the years. You’d think that, if working correctly, my emotions would lead me towards my goal because optimal health, weight loss and a more youthful appearance are all things I consider rewarding.
Instead, I’d be riddled with anxiety when I was the only one at the party or dinner table without a glass of wine. I hated every second and it would take nothing for friends to convince me I should just give in and have a drink.
What possible value could ‘negative’ emotions have when the goal meant so much to me?
I think I was experiencing fear – fear of rejection and isolation – and, if you think about it, that’s a valid and valuable emotion (even if not in this particular case).
The way I see it, sensing threat when you do something outside the group norms is valuable – after all, our ability to bond with others relies on us recognising how to fit in. We’re hard wired for it. Our social skills depend on emotions such as this.
Of course, in this situation the emotion wasn’t helping and the fear was coming from an imagined or perceived threat rather than a real one. Still, recognising that the emotion is simply ‘doing its job’ reduces the need to fight it and makes the next steps easier to achieve.
2. Unhook and Choose the best feeling thought
Where emotions are subconscious and exist in both the mind and body, feelings are the meaning we give to our emotions. They have a thought component, with some thoughts generating better feelings than others.
Take my drinking example. Sitting at the table thinking, “Everyone thinks I’m so boring now. I don’t fit in anymore,” will not just keep fear alive, it will make it worse.
I used to treat those thoughts as ‘true’ and ‘real’. It never occurred to me that they were “just thoughts” and that I had a choice about whether to hang myself of their hooks or unhook and walk away – nor that I’d have known how to do that anyway!
Two things have helped.
- ACT – Acceptance and Commitment Therapy / Theory.
When thoughts keep negative feelings alive, ACT professionals say it’s because we ‘fuse’ with them. We treat them as real and true and we bind our identities to them. For example, fusing with the thought, “Everyone thinks I am boring”, changes how I see myself and the quality of my relationships. It makes me feel worse and reduces the number of good feeling options I believe are available to me. From there, it’s easy to see how the best option looks like a glass of wine.
ACT teaches us to unhook from these bad feeling thoughts although they call it ‘defusion’. They teach you techniques that allow you to see yourself as seperate from the thought – so you come to see thoughts as things that travel around in your head as opposed to being ‘you’. From there, you start seeing the power available to you to shape and play with them a bit so more options open up.
2. The idea of Emotions as GPS
It is not possible for you to feel good about something consistently and have it turn out badly, just as it is not possible for you to feel bad about something consistently and have it turn out well.Esther and Jerry Hicks
I found this concept in the rather esoteric world of Abraham Hicks. I struggle to engage fully with their teachings but I found this idea enormously valuable.
It helped me realise that to move forward towards the things I valued, the best thing I could do was figure out how to feel better whilst achieving my goals. I saw that feeling bad the entire time was part of the reason I gave up.
Of course, we don’t have full control over our thoughts and it’s not as simple as ‘choosing a better feeling thought’ but, with practice, it’s easier than I first believed. Practice has also taught me to recognise the patterns in thoughts that make me feel better or worse.
Patterns in Better and worse feeling thoughts
It’s all about where you place your focus.
Thoughts that make you feel worse have their focus on the things you don’t want – things that are wrong, outside your control or shouldn’t be as they are.
These thoughts bring all the bad stuff into focus and make you feel worse by keeping the emotional reaction and the body’s stress response alive and, before you know it, you’re in a loop.
The cool thing is that as soon as you throw in one new thought at least one new door opens in your mind. Sometimes the door slams shut again really quickly but it’s never that long until more doors appear and eventually one stays open long enough for you to pass through and escape the loop.
Here are patterns I have found to close doors (feel worse) and open doors (feel better).
Thoughts that make me feel better occur when I stop fighting. I accept what is happening, accept where I am and how I feel. I accept my emotional reaction, and compassionately recognise that, on some level my system is doing what it thinks is best. Then I focus on what I do want – so instead of focusing on how isolated I feel at the party or the dinner table, I think about what it would be like to be laughing and chatting with friends. I call to mind memories of lunches, play dates and other situations where I have successfully socialised and connected without even thinking about alcohol and then I focus on doing what I did in those situations – I look up, make eye contact, smile, talk and listen, all the options that were available to me before, I just wasn’t focused on them.
What is the hidden value and power?
Feeling bad is an indicator that something needs to change. The most powerful place to affect change is with our thoughts because those changes make new options available to us. We can’t make best use of our thoughts when we’re fighting ourselves internally so we first have to make peace with our emotions by recognising the value they are attempting to offer.
I have found that by respecting my emotions rather than fighting them or judging them, my ability to feel better has increased, as has my ability to see when I’m off track – when stress rises because I’m working too many hours, when I’m shouting at my kids because my focus is on their behaviour rather than my own and when I’m judging my husband and getting snarky – I know it’s time to slow down, figure out what’s going on and make some changes.
The changes are ALWAYS mine to make. They’re never with anything that’s happening or with anything other people are doing. Nestled in that knowledge is the value and power available to us all.