What’s the Use of Painful Emotions?


Imagine you’ve asked your child six times to come to dinner and she shows no sign of putting down her phone. Or your co-worker promised to change the copier toner and a week later, that yellow warning light is still blinking. In either case, you know that this is not really a big deal, but right now, in this moment, you’re as angry as you’ve ever been. You press that anger down as best you can, but you also fear you’re going to end up exploding somehow, because all that emotional energy has to go somewhere.

There’s nothing quite as destabilizing as anger, or other negative emotions like sadness or anxiety. What’s worse, we’re taught to suppress these negative emotions, so when we snap and show our sadness or the depth of our worry, we often feel ashamed, which in turn leads to more anger or deeper sadness or persistent stress. It’s a neverending, ever-tightening loop.

But while these emotions may feel unpleasant, don’t mistake that for pointless. There’s a good reason, evolutionarily speaking, why those emotions trigger the reactions they do. The problems occur not when we have the emotions, but when we’re unable to bounce back from them, or the emotions come up without a reasonable trigger (i.e., you fly into a rage over something trivial, like no milk left in the fridge).

Your goal isn’t to prevent any and all negative emotions (or repress them, which is worse), but to metabolize them the way you would food: Get what you need from it and let the rest go. This means it’s critical that you can understand what’s causing you to feel the way you do, and to manage your response so that you remain in control.

Here’s a three-step approach to meeting negative emotions with more control.

1. Allow yourself to feel the emotion.
It is absolutely normal, and necessary, to feel the full range of human emotion. Each one gives you information about where your thinking is giving you trouble. If you break a bone in your foot, it hurts, right? The pain is your body saying, “Hey, problem down here in the left fifth metatarsal! Ice pack and x-rays, please!” Painful emotions are your very own built-in feedback system.

Anger may get the blue ribbon for most taboo emotion, especially for women. The fear is that if you’re angry, people might reject or, even worse, dismiss your anger as unimportant or irrational. The emotion boils down to one thing: You feel your rights are being violated. And you may be right! This emotion may be clueing you in to a real infringement that calls for action. But if you’ve in a constant state of anger, then your thoughts are likely out of sync with reality. That’s when you need to practice bringing awareness to your thinking. (Read more on anger.)

2. Take a breath between feeling and expression.
This isn’t about repression. It’s about taking a breath before the emotions run away with you. Emotional literacy is partly about learning how to separate from the feeling and consider it with a neutral mind. When you can find this space, you are more able to disrupt the thoughts feeding the huge emotion. (Read more on negative thinking and stress.)

Deep sadness can come on like a storm. You are so suddenly and completely surrounded by clouds that if can feel like your personality is gone. In your mind, you are the sadness. You aren’t, though, any more that you are the pain in your leg when you get a charley horse. The trick is in training yourself to keep those clouds at a distance before your thoughts fully pick up the old sad refrain. Often breathing, stretching, or otherwise becoming aware of your body can help give you a buffer zone. (Read more on breathing techniques for relaxation.)

3. Challenge the thoughts determining your emotions.
Part of regaining control and calm is being able to identify the thought that’s triggering the emotion, and changing it. You may not even be aware that these thoughts are operating beneath the conscious level. They surely are, though, and investigating them is the only way to lessen their power.

Anxiety gets a lot of mileage out of the idea that some threat is coming to get you. It’s vague enough to apply to anything and ominous enough to affect all your decisions, from what you eat to how you talk to your kids. If your mother says something rude to your new boyfriend, he won’t want to be with you. If you flub your words on the conference call, the potential client won’t hire you. But you can test the thought against reality — and reality will win. If there is a threat out there, you’ll deal with it. If not, you can change the thought.

TRY THIS the next time you’re derailed by an emotion:

When you feel the emotion coming on, flag it. Notice the symptoms, such as clenched jaw, a sinking heaviness in your chest, or the inability to focus.

Identify the thoughts causing the emotion.

Challenge the thought. Is it true? Can you be sure your son is being rude because he wants to hurt you? Have you lost your best friend because she didn’t return your call? Don’t let the negative thought get off easily. You want the real information, not just the emotion.

The sooner you get honest about the thoughts causing a powerful, painful emotion, the sooner you can let it go or take the action that will truly meet your needs.

  • Melanie

    What about when your thought of sadness is because of a slow painful death? How do I help myself?

    • Wanda jensen

      Leave it all in GOD’s hands. We cannot change everything do we leave it in his hands!

  • Nicole Post

    Very interesting article….I will certainly try to use some of these techniques to help with stress.

  • http://valeriei.blogspot.com Valerie

    The section about anger was especially helpful to me. I’ve struggled with experiencing anger ever since I was a child – I felt it was unacceptable for me to have, and so squashed it down, for years. Now, I’m trying to learn how to express it in a healthy way. I’ve never before realized that the emotion of anger “boils down to one thing: [I] feel that [my] rights are being violated”.