As kids, we’re often taught to bury our negative emotions or pretend they’re not there. But did you know that there’s an upside to negative emotions—to the anger, sadness, and anxiety that we all feel? They are powerful guides for growth and critical in getting your needs met.
In fact, negative emotions have to be heard: They don’t actually go away when you ignore them. Studies show that suppressing negative emotions just leads to them resurfacing in other ways, often causing serious emotional, social, and physical health problems, such as high blood pressure and even digestive issues.
The key to handling your negative emotions? Use them as a guide, rather than giving them the final say. Here are three steps to dealing with your negative emotions, understanding what they’re trying to tell you, and leveraging their upsides for success:
1. Notice the Signs
How many times have you wished you had addressed annoyance before it reached full rage-status or recognized exhaustion before it became burnout? We don’t always recognize the signs of our negative emotions until they’ve escalated. Get ahead of these signals by practicing mindfulness.
How to do it: Set aside a few minutes a day to close your eyes and take a few deep breaths or practice meditation. The key is to stop for a moment and tune into what you’re feeling: Are you holding onto emotions physically? Let go of a tight jaw, shoulders, or clenched fists. Are you resisting or judging the emotion? Thoughts like, “I shouldn’t be angry right now” only elicit more discomfort. Just observe with a neutral mind. This awareness will enable you to trace patterns in your responses and recognize which situations typically trigger you.
2. Give Yourself Permission
Negative emotions are uncomfortable, but they aren’t meant to be ignored. When we send these messages straight to voicemail, we’re doing something that psychologists call “avoidance coping,” which sets off a snowball of stress. For negative emotions to pass, you have to give yourself permission to feel them and listen to what they’re trying to tell you.
How to do it: Tell yourself, “I’m angry that my ideas weren’t heard in that meeting,” for example. Rate the intensity of the emotion on a scale from one to ten. Then take a deep breath and give yourself permission to feel it, then let it go. Tell yourself, for example, “It’s okay to feel angry. I know my ideas are valuable and that it wasn’t personal. And now it’s okay to let that anger go.” Then rate the emotion again. Is it less intense than it was before? Keep doing this exercise until the emotion subsides.
3. Reroute Your Response
If there’s a valid reason you’re feeling upset (you’re angry because your boundaries were crossed or you’re frustrated because you don’t have enough time to complete a project, etc.) you don’t have to let go of the issue—just the stress it causes.
How to do it: Reframe the emotion to reroute your response. Your action plan will depend on the specifics of your situation, but here are some general guidelines:
Anger: Try not to take others’ behavior personally (it’s usually not about us at all).
Frustration: Scan your environment for resources you have available to you.
Sadness: Replace or acknowledge something you’ve lost.
Anxiety: Reset for the most realistic (rather than the worst) case scenario.
Embarrassment: Congratulate yourself for leaving your comfort zone.
Guilt: Check your actions against your own values (rather than others’).
Shame: Make a list of pride points, forgive yourself, or make a plan to act with integrity.
When you manage your negative emotions, you no longer have to hide from what they have to say. On the contrary, you can use their messages as tools to boost self-awareness and reclaim control; acting—rather than reacting—in a way that fuels your success and lowers your stress.