How To Work Through Negative Feelings (Without Wishing Them Away With 'Positive Thinking')

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How To Control Your Negative Emotions More Effectively Than Mindfulness & Positive Thinking
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Time to put on those happy pants!

In a truly bizarre new twist, all of the energy we've been taught to spend on positive thinking in times of adversity may not make us any happier in the long run.

Sure, we've all heard the accepted wisdom to "fake it until you make it," and while some people certainly find doing so helpful, new research shows that the key to achieving long-term happiness and success is embracing negative emotions like fear and anger in order to process them in a meaningful way.

Not only should we allow ourselves to feel angry or sad or frustrated, we should require ourselves to do so. The simple truth is that experiencing our full range of emotions is essential when it comes to maintaining our best possible mental health.

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In her book Emotional Agility: Get Unstuck, Embrace Change and Thrive in Work and Life, Harvard psychologist Susan David, Ph.D., explains her belief that the happiest people are those with the capacity to "gain critical insight about situations and interactions from their feelings, and use this knowledge to adapt, align their values and actions, and make changes to bring the best of themselves forward."

Of course, being able to read that and understand that it makes good, logical sense is one thing, but taking action based on that information is another.

Let's be real, no one likes sitting and stewing in their negative feelings. There's a reason most of us would desperately prefer not to feel we emotions like fear, anger, sadness, or confusion, and it's because they are unpleasant. However, just because they don't feel good, that doesn't mean they don't play a critical role in your overall well-being as an individual.

If all of this is hurting your brain to think about as much as it hurt mine when I first learned about it, fret not. At the crux of David's book is a four-step system intended to help anyone out there to become more emotionally agile, and hence, happier, themselves.

Here are the four basic steps involved in learning how to control your emotions in a way "mindfulness" and "positive thinking" simply do not.

1. Showing up.

This step is key, and it's the one that made me a believer. When David says, "Show up," she means that you should stop forcing yourself to think positively when you're true feeling is negative. Instead of questioning whether or not your feelings are "correct," you simply allow yourself to have them.

Your emotions are present for a reason and trying to force them into a different or more convenient shape is only going to cause you more difficulty as you go down the road ahead. David also says that during this step you should take time to accurately and clearly label your feelings so that you can better understand them.

 

2. Stepping out.

This one is a doozy and when you try it the first time, you're likely to feel equal parts like a Jedi and a crazy person.

Now that you clearly labeled your emotions, it's the time for you to take a step back and observe them objectively for what they are: just thoughts and just feelings.

When you detach from your feelings this way, it helps you better observe and understand them, which offers you emotional and psychological protection.

Say you go to a restaurant to eat alone and you're bugging out about everyone thinking you are weird for being there on a solo date. Once you objectively observe these feelings for what they are — "Oh, I'm feeling self-conscious, insecure and nervous" — you are free to quietly eat your meal in a peaceful state of mind. If you don't do this, you might find yourself doing something like awkwardly blurting to your waitress that you DO have a boyfriend, you just wanted some "you" time, and frankly that's way more embarrassing than reading a book while eating a nice quiche at midday on a sunny afternoon.

When you look at your feelings objectively, life becomes full of possibilities, rather than hurdles in need of leaping over.

 

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3. Walking your why.

Once you've mastered objectively observing your emotions, it's time to get back to what really matters. David encourages people to focus on their core values, whatever it is that drives you to get yourself out of bed each morning and inspires you to hustle.

After you experience your negative emotions and observe them in a detached way, the next step is to turning to your values and allow them to be the compass guiding your hand.

David uses the decision of whether or not to do to the gym after a long, stressful day to illustrate. Sure, exercising is probably the last thing you want to do. What you really want is to sit on the couch with chocolate and wine. That is you feeling tired, stressed and a bit lazy. However, you value your health and happiness and you know that exercising helps you with both, so your decision to go the gym is made.

 

4. Moving on.

Once you have the first three steps down, you should have the emotional space available to look for the areas of your life where this approach is hardest for you to put into practice. You "move on" by seeking news ways to tweak your emotional experience so you become better and better able to make choices according to your values, which in turn makes you happier in the long run.

I don't know yet if this is something I'll be able to do all of the time myself, but I do believe that if I work towards mastering it I could be a seriously less stressed out and far happier person in the long run, so I plan to give it my best shot.

 

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Rebecca Jane Stokes is a sex, humor and lifestyle writer living in Brooklyn, New York with her cat, Batman. She hosts the sex, love, and dating advice show, Becca After Dark on YourTango's Facebook Page every Tuesday and Thursday at 10:15 pm Eastern. For more of her work, check out her Tumblr.

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