Destructive emotions are an inevitable part of life. I think there is a misconception among many people that it’s somehow possible to avoid negative emotions and always feel calm and peaceful. I wish!
Shitty things are going to happen that will make you feel afraid, or angry, or guilty, or full of self-doubt. They key is not to squash the emotion down and try to make it go away, but rather to notice and understand it, and through this process be able to let it go a little faster.
You can’t make negative emotions go away, but you can help them not to bother you as much.
RAIN is an acronym that was introduced to me a few years ago by a therapist. It stands for:
So let’s say something happens that makes you upset. Maybe your boss yells at you at work, or your spouse criticizes you, or a fried betrays you in some way. What next?
Recognize. Pay attention and notice exactly what emotion you’re feeling. It sounds obvious, but so often we don’t actually pay attention to how we’re feeling. Have you ever realized that you’re in a bad mood but don’t know why, and after you start thinking about it you trace the source of your bad mood to some small comment or incident that happened hours before? I know I have. The problem here is that if you let your anger or hurt or whatever it is build up and build up in your subconscious, it becomes much harder to deal with later.
Instead, pay attention right away to how something stressful makes you feel. Are you angry? Afraid? Hurt? Annoyed? Notice it. Give the emotion a name.
Accept. The next step is to accept that this is how you’re feeling, and nothing you can do can make it go away at this immediate moment. Remember that bad things happen, and negative emotions can be a perfectly normal and natural response when they do. Sometimes things just suck, but it’s okay.
Investigate. Now you need to dig a little deeper to understand why you’re feeling the way you do. Let’s say your spouse made a critical comment about how you’re starting to look out of shape. Maybe at first you feel angry. “How dare she say that about me,” you think.
But then you investigate a little further, and realize you actually feel hurt, not angry. (Hurt is almost always underlying anger). You’re hurt because someone you love and respect said something negative about you. Investigate even a little further. Why are you hurt? Is it because you think there’s some truth to the comment? Maybe underneath you feel guilty because you haven’t been taking care of yourself as well as you should?
There are many, many layers to negative emotions, and the better you understand why you feel the way you do, the easier it is to take steps to feeling better while learning from the experience.
Nonindentification. Emotions rarely travel alone. Instead they come with stories and narratives that are even more destructive than the emotion itself.
You create these narratives when you identify too strongly with the emotion. Instead of just feeling angry, you start to tell stories in your head of why your anger is justified, which makes you even angrier. When you’re sad, you put yourself down, so you’ll feel even more sad. Stop telling those stories. Practice just feeling the emotion, without adding anything extra to it.
So take a step back and imagine yourself as an observer of your emotional state instead of a participant. See if you can separate the emotion itself from the narrative it’s trying to tell you.
Why You Need to Process Negative Emotions
Anytime you feel emotional pain, it is an opportunity for you to learn something about yourself, and by learning become a more tolerant, calm and peaceful person.
Anytime you try to “get over” a negative emotion too quickly, you’re not giving yourself the time and space to understand and learn from it it. Only by going through the process can you teach yourself how to better cope when bad things happen in the future.