Unlearning what you know about negative emotions
You open Instagram- you see friends travelling to exotic destinations, influencers attending exciting events ; brands posting launches of new products ; celebrities with their new movies and ads.
You shut it after a while- it feels too much to consume without making comparisons with your own life. You look at YouTube and think, “maybe this will be a little better”. But lo and behold, vlogs featuring travels, unboxing and hauls are the top suggestions.
Everywhere you look, there are statements such as “be grateful” ; “positively manifest what you want and it will happen” ; “good vibes only” being thrown around inducing immense guilt, frustration and shame at feeling a semblance of a negative emotion (toxic positivity as it is now termed).
All over the world, people are turning to social media platforms to escape from their realities in different ways. While this does often provide some respite, it perpetuates the notion that we have to avoid and run away from any semblance of a negative feeling or that we ‘shouldn’t’ experience it. Not only does this make us feel angry at ourselves when we do experience it but this has also affected our distress tolerance i.e. our ability to tolerate and manage any amount of distress/ discomfort.
Also read: What are the effects of stress on the body?
After reading this you might wonder - why exactly would we want to tolerate/ embrace the discomfort caused by negative emotions? It’s uncomfortable and does not make us feel positive.
Well, let’s take a look at why.
All emotions serve a purpose- positive and negative. And no, this is not some cliched saying.
Biologically speaking, negative emotions serve a purpose and are actually healthy for us. They serve as a warning system. Let’s take fear for example- in threatening situations, fear sends an alarm through our brain and body to get us prepared to deal with the situation and to notice any difference in the environment, in the first place. It also aids us in taking less risky decisions that may very well impact our safety and well-being.
Thankfully, humans have gone beyond the point of looking out for primitive threats. But this is the same system that kicks into action with modern day threats (such as walking in a darkened street) by making us more alert and ready to protect ourselves.
Additionally ,there are other emotions that can feel uncomfortable such as sadness, disappointment or even frustration. While these may be slightly more difficult to process, evidence has shown that they also aid in better assessing objective reality and eventually help us to learn from our missteps. For instance, if you have experienced a rejection by a company you were vying for, you might feel a huge sense of disappointment and frustration. While it might feel like it is personal, after some processing of what happened, feeling disappointed and frustrated at it might lead you to focus on what you can do to improve in the future i.e. focus one what you have control over.
Experiencing and managing this range of uncomfortable emotions also facilitates our distress tolerance in many crises that may arise and adds to resilience. It equips us with a keen awareness and understanding of our emotions and the tools that work for us to help us cope. This can only arise out of actually experiencing the emotions versus avoidance wherein we are left with little emotional awareness and an inability to cope and hinders the development of healthy emotional resilience.
The key therein lies not in elimination of negative emotions (which is hardly possible) but in understanding and coping with them, when they arise.
This brings us to the ‘how’ : how can we do that?
Firstly, understanding that negative emotions are healthy and essential for our functioning- as uncomfortable as the experience is- and coming to terms with this will make the process less distressing.
The next stop in this journey is to sit with what you are feeling i.e. notice the physiological and emotional experience from a place of understanding rather than a place of judgment. Almost like observing a plant growing and curiously looking at what is going on rather than judging the plant for growing/not growing in the first place. This could be through checking in with yourself about what you might be experiencing rather than shaming yourself for it. For example, the first kind of self talk could look like first labelling the emotion and then asking yourself where it might be stemming from and what led to it versus judgmental self-talk that would make you feel awful about experiencing it in the first place.
If there is physiological distress, tackle that first in ways that work for you. This could be through grounding activities, movement, breathing intentionally for instance.
Once you feel physiologically soothed is when there will be space for the emotional processing. This could entail labelling the emotion, examining what it represents / what it signifies and identifying what you need to cope healthily.
Embracing the necessity of all emotions can have the benefit of ‘emotional agility’ which looks at harnessing one’s emotional awareness in each situation and adapting well, according to psychologist and professor, Todd Kashan.
It is definitely easier said than done and there is a delicate balance to be struck between wallowing and creating space for negative emotions that will differ individually.
Not everyone will experience this in the same way and it is an individual journey of growth that will ebb and flow.
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