How To Process Negative Emotions

The measure of growth isn’t how easy your life is; it’s how easy you are on yourself when your life is hard.

So, you feel bad and you want to know what to do about it.

Let’s talk about it!

We hear a lot from the media, friends, and just the world around us that happiness is the ultimate goal.

It’s as if we are entitled to feel happy and feel good all the time. If we don’t feel happy all the time, then we think something’s wrong.

That’s our biggest mistake.

It’s just not true.

Life is supposed to be filled with negative emotions and problems.

Imagine life with only positive emotions… would you even know they were positive?

We need the contrast of good and bad to know good.

Once you accept this, you’ll be happier because you won’t expect it to be perfect all the time.

So let’s explore negative emotion, what it really is, and how you can process it so that you’re not adding suffering to something that is already painful.

What To Do About Negative Emotions

It’s important to know exactly what negative emotions are, what they mean, and how you can use your brain to your advantage so you learn how to overcome and work through negative emotions.

Defining Negative Emotion

Emotion is a vibration in your body caused by your thoughts.

Negative emotion is an uncomfortable vibration in your body caused by your thoughts.

It’s always from your thinking that you create your feelings. It’s never the other way around. 

Nothing outside of you causes you to feel negative emotion. 

Some examples of how your thinking causes negative emotion are…

  • The stress you feel about your job is due to your thinking about your job. 
  • The loneliness you feel about your love life is due to your thinking about what it means that you’re single. 
  • The shame you feel about your debt is due to what you’re thinking about your money and what that means about you.

A good way to kinda check yourself in a circumstance where you are feeling a negative emotion is to think of 100 different people in that same circumstance and how all of them would have different emotions (based on their own thoughts).

Now, I’m not saying you want to be happy all the time. If you go through a break-up, someone dies, or you’re fired, you probably want to feel negative emotion. It’s okay to feel angry, feel sad, or another negative feeling. The important part is how you process those difficult emotions.

If you choose negative emotion on purpose, you can allow it. If you resist it and fight it, you’ll increase it, making it worse.

So, now let’s talk about how you can actually process negative emotion…

What Most People Do (Avoid, React, Resist Negative Emotion)

Negative emotion is just an uncomfortable feeling. That’s it.

Most people avoid, resist, or react to negative emotion. 

When you resist negative emotion, you make it worse. You end up feeling worse. It’s important to learn coping strategies that will help you process negative emotions.

When someone is angry and yelling, she’s resisting and reacting to the anger. She’s not allowing it. You can be very angry and allow it to buzz in the background without acting it out. This is a skill you can get really good at.

On top of all that, a lot of times we avoid negative emotions through what I refer to as “escaping.” This is using external pleasure to lessen the negative emotion.

Examples of escaping include…

  • Overeating.
  • Over drinking.
  • Over shopping.
  • Over working.
  • Overn exercising
  • Over fill-in-the-blank.

Whatever you do to avoid feeling negative emotion is an escape. It makes sense when you think of your brain always wanting to seek pleasure and avoid pain. It’s a survival mechanism. Your brain hasn’t evolved to know the difference between the fear of someone attacking you and the fear of quitting your job. This is why it’s so important for you to process negative emotion without giving it meaning. If you give it meaning, you’ll find a reason to avoid doing the very thing you want (going for your big, impossible goal).

I notice that if I allow a negative emotion, it will go away in a day or so. If I resist it, it will actually increase and I’ll make it worse.

I want to encourage you to allow the anger (or whatever negative emotion you are feeling) and process it and notice it. Accept it as the human experience instead of trying to run from it and make it mean that something has gone wrong.

What Your Negative Emotions Mean

Pain is inevitable; suffering is optional. — Haruki Murakami

When you give negative emotion meaning that doesn’t serve you, you add suffering on to your negative emotion. 

This is what I like to call Clean Pain versus Dirty Pain. This is basically regular emotional pain versus suffering.

An example of clean pain might be if you go through a divorce, you might feel devastated and heartbroken. The dirty pain or the suffering is when you add on thoughts to the devastation that resist reality, such as, “this shouldn’t be happening.” 

You make the negative emotion mean that something has gone terribly wrong instead of processing it.

It’s not your fault! Seriously. We haven’t been taught this before.

But now you know.

Nothing has gone wrong. 
Bad things are supposed to happen. 
You’re exactly where you’re supposed to be. 

When my dad passed away, I reminded myself — “Everyone dies. His life is complete. I’m sad but nothing has gone wrong.”

This mindset work really helped me because I could have been thinking — “He did this. I should have had a different dad. He should have taken better care of himself. He shouldn’t have died.” Notice those sentences are just thoughts. If I believe them, they create so much more suffering.

When you decide to give your negative emotion meaning that has a story that’s the opposite of the truth, you add suffering onto your pain. 

I like to remember this beautiful Byron Katie quote…

If you argue with the past you lose, but only 100% of the time. — Byron Katie

The truth is what is actually happening.

You can acknowledge it with something like, “Yes this happened. Yes, this is horrible. Yes, I feel devastated. This is the way of it.” This feels so much better than trying to control what is uncontrollable and saying things like, “This is all wrong. This wasn’t supposed to happen.”

So notice when you feel negative emotion and allow the negative emotion, but remember nothing has gone wrong. This will keep you in Clean Pain. It’ll feel so much better.

How To Use Your Brain To Your Advantage

As I mentioned above, your brain is just doing what it’s been programmed to do.

I like to talk about two parts of the brain.

You have a prefrontal cortex where you do all your planning from. It’s the area from which you make very rational decisions. You can decide ahead of time from your prefrontal cortex without any drama. 

Then there’s your primitive brain where you are wired for survival. This brain is fight or flight. It’s always seeking pleasure, avoiding pain, and aiming to conserve energy. 

If you plan ahead of time, you make the clearest decisions for your future.

Then when you go to implement , your primitive brain is going to fight you because it wants to keep you alive. This is where it’s so important that you don’t make your negative emotion mean anything. If you do, you’ll self-sabotage. You’ll make the fear and doubt mean stop or quit. It never means that. It’s just your primitive brain trying to keep you alive.

Let’s take the example of you deciding ahead of time what you’re going to eat — like a food plan. You decide, for the next week, this is what I’m going to eat. In the moment when you implement you are going to have urges to eat off your plan. If you do this work, you will know how important it is to trust yourself and the decision you made ahead of time. Meaning, you’re not going to eat off plan, you’re going to allow the urges (the negative emotion). You already made your decision.

I call these decisions ahead of time.

Another example is when I quit my jobs (read more about that here and here). I felt really anxious at that moment (here’s my diary on that). My heart was fluttering, I almost felt sick to my stomach. Adrenaline was on overdrive! But I never made that mean I had doubted my previous decisions or made a mistake. I always trust my decisions ahead of time.

That is why decision making is so important! When you make decisions ahead of time and you get really good at it, you will implement and you won’t make the negative emotion mean anything.

This skill will serve you well when you design your future from your future.

Expect Negative Emotion When You Up-Level Your Life

Know that anytime you try to uplevel your life, your primitive brain is going to start freaking out. It’s going to create the doubt, the anxiety, the confusion. This is just because your brain wants to stay alive.

It would prefer if you stayed in the cave and didn’t do anything. It knows if you repeat the past, you will stay alive because you’ve stayed alive doing what you’ve previously done.

When you do new and different things outside your comfort zone, it has nothing to pull from, and your brain thinks that you could die. This is another reason why it’s so important that you decide ahead of time what you want from a very clear-minded place. Then when you implement and feel those negative emotions, you allow the negative emotion without making it mean anything and you move through it and you will blow your own mind.

You have to be willing to feel really uncomfortable if you want to design a new future from your future and achieve big goals.

How To Process Negative Emotions The Right Way

Given all this fun stuff I just taught you… now I want you to have the tool of processing negative emotion the right way.

When you accept it, ironically, the negative emotion processes and goes away much faster. 

First, notice the vibration in your body.

This creates a separation. You are not your feelings. Your feelings are in your body. You can watch them. It’s actually kind of fun!

Second, name the negative emotion in one word (fear, doubt, anger, frustration, insecure, lonely, etc.).

I notice that if I don’t name my negative emotions I have this added worry like something has gone wrong— even if I’m not actively telling myself that, I make it so much worse.

This is a lot of the work I do with clients in Grow You. We use a Feelings List to get really specific about naming the emotions they’re experiencing so they can increase their awareness and process the emotions properly.

Third, describe it in detail. 

For example, you might say, “This is fear. I feel it in my chest. It’s hot. It’s uncomfortable. It’s urgent.” Notice how that is describing the emotion, rather than explaining it, which might look like — “I feel fear because I have to sit down with my boss and have a review today.” When you try and explain your emotion you aren’t taking responsibility for your negative emotion.

So I take a time out and I write. I describe what’s going one. I describe the feeling in my body and I name the emotion.

And this doesn’t always have to be in regards to the big stuff. We can feel negative emotions about the small stuff too and still cause suffering.

Fourth, identify the thought you’re thinking that’s causing the emotion.

Remember: your thoughts create your feelings. Now that you’re clear on the emotion and what it feels like in your body, you can shift and identify the thought you’re thinking that’s creating the emotion.

An example I have from my life recently is when Steve went out of town for four days, and I stayed home with Penny. Well, she needed medicine and it ended up making her sick. (Side note — I’ve learned a lot about dogs and medicine and the potential for it not to agree with their stomachs!) Anyway…

It was a long four days with being couped up with a puppy that isn’t really potty trained yet, who is not feeling well, and it’s freezing outside, which makes it harder to go out and let her spend time outside instead of on my carpet. I was so frustrated. I took a break, sat down on my bed, and wrote down all of the facts and my thoughts about them. And I saw I was blaming Steve like he caused my frustration. And it simply wasn’t true. I was creating that emotion from my thoughts. I decided I wanted to feel frustrated for a bit. But I took full responsibility for that emotion. This is what emotional maturity (and Emotional Adulthood) look like.

Fifth, decide on purpose if you want to feel it.

Once you name the negative and get some authority over that emotion, you can decide if you want to feel it.

I decided that I wanted to feel frustrated, but I stopped blaming Steve. He didn’t create that frustration. It had nothing to do with him. I was projecting it. I had to slow down and bring awareness to what was really going on.

We all are guilty of this. We blame our emotions on something external to us.

The worst thing you can do is to try to change your circumstances to feel better.

An example of this is I remember when I was single I would feel bored or lonely on a Friday night, and I would always try to fix it and make plans.

“I’m bored because I have nothing to do,” I would think.

No, I’m bored because I have thoughts that are creating the emotion of boredom. Something like, “I should have plans. I don’t want to be bored. I want to go out.”

Once I brought awareness to this, it was so much better. I said, “Oh! This is just boredom. This is just lonely. I can do boredom and lonely. It’s totally fine.”

See the difference between negative emotion that’s just a part of life versus the suffering that’s completely optional?

This work is so powerful.

So, for you, my love… I want you to get really good at experiencing that emotion so you process it and you allow it without making it mean something else and without trying to change your circumstances to feel better.

And when you do this, the most amazing thing happens. You realize that in any situation the worst thing that can happen is a negative emotion and you can handle it.

The Worst Feeling (What’s Yours?)

I want to encourage you to do some preemptive work with processing negative emotions and not just waiting for them to come to practice.

Think about the worst feeling for you to experience.

Create that feeling on purpose. Be with it.

Notice you are the creator of it. This gives you authority over it.

With these tools, you won’t blame your circumstances for how you feel.

The worst that can happen to you is a feeling. And the feeling you’re experiencing is a new feeling. It’s caused by your current thinking. You may be thinking about something in the past or the future. But it’s not the event from the past or future that’s responsible for your feeling in this moment. You’re creating that. And you have the option to feel it, allow it, and let it pass.

You can always feel however you want whenever you want. The choice is yours. Circumstances have nothing to do with it.

A Final Note

When you’re not afraid to feel negative emotion, you’re so much more willing to experience your life as it is now and also willing to pursue greatness.

You also have less suffering.

And then you feel better!

This work is so important. It’s not soft. It’s actually the fuel for why you do or don’t do everything (your emotions are what drive your actions).

To take this deeper, join me inside Grow You.