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Day 77: The Utility of Negative Emotions

December 30, 2023

When you were a kid, what did your parents do when you felt justifiably unhappy?

Perhaps they gave you a big hug. Maybe they distracted you with treats or did something to make you laugh. Maybe they paid more attention to you in those moments than in the moments when you were content to occupy yourself.

As a parent, I’ve done all of these.

Today, as I listened to a podcast conversation between Dr Rangan Chatergee and happiness expert, Mo Gawdat, I saw another piece of the emotional puzzle that I haven’t seen in quite the same way before.

What does this have to do with joy?

Our brains are constantly scanning our internal and external environment and asking, “Am I ok?”

When the answer comes back “No”, our brains figure out the best way to get back to being “ok”.

Most of my work as a coach focuses on the original “no” – i.e. what is causing the brain to answer “no”? 

But this morning, my attention turned to the piece that happens after that – where the brain answers “what should I do next?”

In the conversation, Mo Gawdat pointed out that many of us are still working with our emotions by running patterns that worked for us in childhood. Again, I already knew this as it’s this pattern than can keep people playing small even when they have big dreams and goals.

But today I thought about it in the context of joyful living and how I sometimes cut myself off from joy by holding on to irritation, frustration or dissatisfaction over little things that happen on an everyday basis. Mo Gawdat pointed out that underneath our reactions is often a pattern that developed very early on in life – where we learned that being upset brought comfort, love, attention or something else positive from the people who loved us.

The point he was making is that often we hold onto these negative feelings in an effort to bring the same comfort, love and attention into THIS moment but since we’re not little kids anymore, it doesn’t come – which only fuels the negative feelings further.

“What we have to do now is remember we’re not six anymore,” he said.

This is where I think a little differently to Mo because I can see how easily I could turn on myself if I meet my need for comfort with a thought like, “Come on, you’re not six anymore!”

Instead, I will approach this the way I aim to approach other difficult feelings – by parenting the six year old the way I aim to parent my children – with compassion.

I think when we acknowledge the six year old (sometimes the age varies but let’s just say six) and “hold their hand”, they feel safe enough to calm down and then we calm down too. 

Understanding the six year old within me might just be trying to get mummy to come and give her a hug is incredibly helpful in switching off the, “I shouldn’t be feeling like this. I need to calm down” thoughts and switching on the, “What is the little kid within me hoping will happen?” and then helping her find her way to whatever safe harbour she’s seeking.

I’ve had enormous success in my emotional health by “parenting” myself with compassion and this new thought is one that I believe will be a great addition to the mix that I hope will become the mix I can pass on to my children so they’re able to do this for themselves in adulthood too. 

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