Art by Silvia Galimberti

Emotions solve problems without thought at the moment. They’re based on what’s been useful in the past – in our evolutionary past and your personal past – Paul Ekman

The past months have likely been a boiling point of emotions for many people. It has certainly been a stressful period for me – I’ve lost my ongoing income source, had to return to my childhood home to live with my family after twelve years of being on my own and struggled with constant worry about a very uncertain future. To cope and keep calm, a couple of practices came in handy, but being human has many layers. To maintain a state of calm, gain clarity and be in control of ourselves, we need a multiple angle approach. 

One of these very important angles is the development of our emotional intelligence, particularly learning about negative emotions. More often than not, many of our problems and unhappiness occur due to a lack of emotional awareness and maturity, and this makes us rather reactive than in control of our responses.

The relationship we have with our emotional lives looks a little like this: we struggle to understand many of its aspects. The reasons why we feel anxious, sad or excited evade us. When we feel scared, angry or irritated, we tend to respond in automatic ways, which have worked in the past but are not necessarily useful or effective in the present. We evade uncomfortable sensations or push them under the rug; we fail to acknowledge and process them, then end up feeling irritated, depressed, anxious, disconnected. 

When it comes to relationships, we find it hard to communicate what we feel or what we need to others and surprise or hurt them with our reactions. At the same time, we can’t accurately interpret others’ behaviour, and we often draw conclusions on a surface level. Through empathy and compassion, we’ll probably see that underneath our initial impression of them being mean or hurtful they suffer and battle their own demons.

My journey with developing emotional intelligence began several years ago, and I can say with confidence that it’s one of the most important things I could have done to improve the quality of my life. 

“If your emotional abilities aren’t in hand, if you don’t have self-awareness, if you are not able to manage your distressing emotions, if you can’t have empathy and have effective relationships, then no matter how smart you are, you are not going to get very far. – Daniel Goleman

From personal experience with self-observation, observation of others and research, it appears that negative emotions have certain features.

  • They consume energy.
  • Once an emotional episode happens, there’s little we can do about it – we get too lost in it. The sensation of losing myself was one of the things that struck me most in the beginning. After intense arguments, I would feel like the guy from Memento. It seemed like some other part of me took over, and when I returned, I had no idea what the hell had happened.
  • Negative emotions are not useful, but we like them (for some people they’re like an addiction), and we even glorify them (see the myth of the tortured artist).
  • They distract us from what’s important and disconnect us from each other.
  • They typically have a certain type of thinking or attitude associated with them, which prevents us from seeing things as they are. 
  • The easiest way to get trapped inside a negative emotional state is by not accepting the way things are and cling to the “reality” that we built inside our heads. We do this so often and so mechanically that we don’t even see it.
  • We are responsible for how we feel. Everything comes from within, not from someone or something outside us. We create an inner discourse to rationalise the emotions and make ourselves believe we’re entitled to feel the way we do. And this is the hardest thing to accept.

So where to start? 

Certainly not by just the act of wishing. Despite our ardent and ginuwine desires, the process of dealing with negative emotions is hard; it requires constant and active effort. On the other hand, the road to gaining emotional skills is not paved with abstract ideas. The tools for work are in our grasp.

Managing negative emotions is intrinsically linked to the awareness and understanding of our emotional life. To gain that knowledge, we begin with attention and observation directed towards ourselves. Through a long period of self-observation, we gather information, as much as possible without judgement. I’ll stress the without judgement aspect because, if we are honest, we’ll eventually see and face some uncomfortable truths about ourselves. The point however is to be aware, not to put blame.

What should we pay attention to?

We should observe in ourselves things like – what are the negative emotions that we experience, in what circumstances they happen, how we react, what thoughts accompany the emotion, what are the body sensations that we experience at the moment, and if we have a predisposition towards a certain emotion.

I noticed that situations that I considered unfair or different to how I expected or imagined them to be irritated and frustrated me easily. Among these were unprofessional people, people that had no self or spatial awareness in means of public transportation, car drivers who parked in all the wrong spaces, not being paid on time and the list went on. In each of these cases, I lost a lot of energy complaining and feeling angry, instead of keeping calm and coming up with real solutions. 

After we gain some perspective on our triggers and reactions, we can begin to work. For some emotions, self-observation itself will be enough to deal with them. 

One way to heal your emotional problems is to cultivate another part of your being, like the witness. Use the witness to cultivate awareness in dealing with emotions one by one. As the witness gets stronger, your emotional problems become less relevant to your existence. By witnessing, you can divest emotions of their power. When you’re deep in the psychological realm and you keep trying to work it out, you just keep investing in it. It’s a bottomless well of stuff. – Ram Dass 

Another means of depriving emotions of their power is to remember the fact that it all depends where our attention goes in that specific moment. Let’s say you feel sad or upset about something. If you direct your attention towards the body sensations, you’ll notice that the intensity of the emotion will start to decrease and, after a while, it will pass. That way, you will feel the emotion, but it won’t control you.   

In some cases, changing our attitude or what we tell ourselves will defuse the emotion and, in time, even stop it from coming. This is something we need to do before the situation takes place. Take the case of getting frustrated with people in public transportation. Instead of expecting them to be aware and to do something so that I would feel better and more comfortable, I chose to change my location, when possible, to get their attention on the fact in a way that was polite or, to accept the fact that there was nothing I could do at the time.

Keeping track of our emotional episodes, to have more choice in terms of what we get emotional about and when, and how we respond when we are emotional is also advice shared by psychologist Paul Ekman. He’s best known for his work on emotions and their relation to facial expressions and his Atlas of Emotions project, commissioned by the Dalai Lama.  

Ekman suggests that we keep a journal of all the instances when we become emotional so we can find our triggers. Once we know the triggers, our aim will be to increase the gap between the impulse and our actions, specifically to be aware of the impulse before we act. To do this, he recommends a mindfulness practice. 

Obviously, not all negative emotions are the same. Some are harder to deal with than others, and it takes a longer time to get there. When it comes to managing my emotions, I’m far from being a Jedi Master. However, even the smallest actions I took in this direction have made my life better. So I’ll leave you with this: don’t believe what you read here, instead try and verify it yourself. 

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