Fear. Anger. Pain. Regret. We all experience negative emotions from time to time. And when these emotions show up, our first reaction is to push them aside, bury them, and wish they would just go away. However, suppressing our emotions just makes them grow even more powerful. But if suppressing them isn’t the right solution, what are we supposed to do instead? Should we just be passive, take the pain lying down, and pray for it to pass quickly?
I’ve been struggling somewhat with this issue myself. I never quite found a solution that helped me manage negative emotions as effectively as I wanted. Until, one day, I accidentally stumbled upon it when taking a cold shower.
I started taking cold showers mainly as a time-saving hack; if I force myself to shower cold, I will spend less time showering and more time on activities I find more meaningful. However, I always dreaded the moment of the ice-cold water piercing every nerve in my body. Until recently, my coping mechanism was to simply grit through the pain and think: “It’s almost over. It’s almost over.”
Then, one day, I decided to try something new. Instead of seeing myself as a victim of the pain, and praying for it to be done with me soon, what if I used the pain to my advantage? What if I viewed the pain as something that made me stronger, and then use that new strength to better handle the emotion?
Once I tried that, the icy water immediately felt less painful. By viewing the pain as something that gave me more strength to handle pain, I started welcoming the numbing coldness spreading through my body. Because the more cold I took on, the less I knew the coldness would bother me. Instead of just suffering through the pain passively, I was actively using the pain’s own power against itself. The more pressure the pain put on me, the stronger I felt to handle the pressure.
It was a simple mind shift. But, to me, it was a night and day difference in how I felt. Because for the first time, I was now in control of my emotions. When I had previously tried to push my emotions away, I was really trying to run away from them. And the emotions just returned more powerful. When I then tried to stop running away, and instead suffer through them passively, I was taking on the role of a helpless victim.
But when I started welcoming the negative emotion, because I knew that I would get the strength to fight it by absorbing the emotion, that was the first time I felt myself being in control.
This experience taught me two valuable lessons, that I want to share with you:
- It’s not the emotion itself that hurts. It’s your wanting the emotion to go away that causes the pain.
When I reflected on my two previous coping mechanisms, a) running from my emotions, and b) suffering through them, I realized they had one common denominator: my wanting the emotion to go away. But when I then started welcoming the negative emotions when they showed up, I realized the emotions were not that painful in themselves. It was my intolerance of my own emotions that had caused me the most pain. Now that I know the emotions actually aren’t painful in themselves, I’m even more willing to run toward fear, boredom, and regret when I notice them arising. In fact, I’m now more afraid of not running toward them head first, because then I will experience the true self-inflicted pain of wanting them to go away.
- View negative emotions as something that makes you stronger. It’s by absorbing the emotion that you gain the strength to handle it.
Think of managing negative emotions as “emotional judo”. A judo master doesn’t flee from her opponent, launch into an attack, or let her opponent strike her without defending herself. Instead, she uses her opponent’s strength as a weapon against himself. Her power comes from her opponent giving it to her. Emotions work the same way. Only by absorbing their power do you gain the strength to manage them. And the stronger the emotion is, the stronger you also become at handling it. No emotion is too powerful.
I hope this piece has given you a fresh perspective on how you can manage your own negative emotions. The next time you experience fear, boredom, jealousy, or pain, don’t push the emotion away or just suffer through it passively. Instead, welcome the emotion and let it emotion flow through your body as much as it wants. And as it does, feel yourself becoming stronger. Feel yourself gaining more power to handle the emotion. And feel yourself growing more confident as you realize that, the more the emotion tries to challenge you, it simply gives you even more power to contain it.
I believe we can all develop a healthier relationship with our negative emotions by welcoming them. Make space for them when they show up. And as they flow through you, know that they are giving you the power to handle them. This simple practice has been a game-changer in my personal life, and I hope it can do the same for you too!