Vincent Van Gogh said that emotions are the captains of our lives and we obey them without realizing it. We all get emotional, but not all of us know how to manage emotions properly, which is why they often take over, pushing us to make hasty or inappropriate decisions.
However, emotions are not an enemy that we must silence, ignore or fight, but signals from our inner compass that we must pay attention to. Fear warns us of danger while nostalgia tells us that we need to recover lost ties.
Any emotion is adaptive and useful for the human being, as long as it is manifested within adequate parameters. Thus, a state of exaggerated euphoria and happiness, like the one that characterizes mania, is just as maladaptive as an exaggerated state of sadness, as in depression. The problem arises when this emotion escapes the person’s control, making imposible to handle the situation.
Emotions enrich our lives, so we should not limit ourselves to repressing them, like when we bite our tongues to not show our anger or we fake a smile to hide sadness, but we should learn to balance and channel them in an assertive and healthy way.
How to manage negative emotions?
The management of emotions is a process that begins with their recognition, continues with the thoughts that feed them and ends with their expression. For this reason, if we want to take back the reins of our affective universe, we must follow these 3 steps to manage emotions:
1. Label emotions to find better solutions
Many people refer to their emotional world without nuance. For example, every time they come home from work they say “it’s been a stressful day”. But there is a huge difference between being stressed, frustrated, disappointed, or exhausted.
When we label our affective universe in such a broad way, it is difficult to take concrete actions that allow us to attenuate the negative emotions that we are experiencing. If we have a feeling of general emotional discomfort, there is little we can do to feel better. On the other hand, if we realize that we are distressed, irritated or upset by certain circumstances, we have the possibility of taking action on the matter to solve the problem.
Our ability to accurately label emotions is called emotional granularity and, according to a study conducted at George Mason University, it helps us adopt more effective coping strategies to deal with situations that overwhelm us, instead of falling into destructive behaviors . Accurately labeling our feelings allows us to understand what is happening so we can make a plan to feel better.
For this reason, the first step in managing emotions is to expand our vocabulary and emotional awareness. We must listen more to our feelings and go deeper into them. Instead of simply saying that we feel “happy,” we can distinguish between states such as blissful, euphoric, or inspired. Instead of just saying we’re “sad,” we might acknowledge that we’re actually feeling down, disappointed, or nostalgic.
Clearing that emotional fog will improve our understanding of the situation in which we find ourselves. It will allow us to see the problem more clearly and the possible paths that we can follow to solve it. At the same time, emotional granularity opens the doors to a vaster affective world that allows us to enjoy the infinite nuances of positive emotions.
2. Cognitive restructuring, change emotions by changing thoughts
Emotions are, to a large extent, the result of our reaction to what happens to us. If we win a prize we experience euphoria and if we suffer a setback we feel frustrated. However, the relationship between events and our emotions is not so causal or direct.
The way in which we interpret circumstances, the context and even the signals that our body sends influence our emotional state. We do not limit ourselves to reacting to circumstances, our brain also constructs the experience according to the meaning it gives it. For example, we can interpret a rapid heartbeat as a sign of fun on a roller coaster or as anxiety if we are about to give a public speech.
Our interpretations of events can make the difference between feeling excited or anxious, thus influencing our mood and performance. Our thoughts can add more fuel to the fire or, on the contrary, contribute to putting it out.
In this sense, researchers from Tel Aviv University asked a group of people to see disturbing photographs and try to change their thoughts to produce a more positive emotional response, a technique known as cognitive restructuring. They verified that those who gave a more positive explanation to what they were seeing could manage better their emotions.
Reframing the meaning of a situation alters its emotional impact. It does not imply lying to ourselves, denying reality or falling into a naive positivism, but trying to see things from a more adaptive and convenient perspective. An artist with stage fright, for example, could reconsider the meaning of that nervousness by relabeling it as simply “getting excited” about his next show.
Our emotional reactions are not written in stone, they are much more malleable than we imagine. There are different ways to read the signals that our body sends and we can give different meanings to the circumstances. We must ensure that thinking does not become our worst enemy, but rather helps us feel better so that we can deal more adaptively with the problems that come our way.
3. From full acceptance to assertive expression
There are times when circumstances overwhelm us, plain and simple. Like when we are insulted, a close person hurts us or we suffer an irreparable loss. In those cases, it’s hard not to feel outraged, disappointed, or sad. When emotional containment dams are breached, we must be able to moderate our responses.
Our emotional reactions are usually mediated by an infinite number of factors, from our personal experience to our character, the circumstances in which we find ourselves and, of course, the culture and education we have received.
As a general rule, we usually follow two paths: give free rein to our feelings or, on the contrary, suppress them. The bad news is that neither of these two strategies usually leads to good results.
Containing emotions can take its toll on us. In a classic psychological experiment, researchers asked people to hold back their emotions during a sad and harrowing movie, exaggerate them, or let them flow naturally. They found that people who had tried to alter their emotional state tended to give up sooner on a later problem. Resistance to emotional responses sapped their willpower and self-control.
This means that managing emotions does not imply giving them carte blanche, but neither does it imply repressing them. If we want to use them to our advantage, we must fully accept them. And for this we must avoid judging what we feel. No emotion is “inappropriate”, what can be “inappropriate” is its expression. Therefore, we just need to learn to express them assertively.
That level of acceptance obviously requires hard internal work, but the results are worth it because, although it may seem contradictory, when we stop fighting emotions, they lose part of their influence on us, so they stop being so problematic.
When we connect with our emotions, without judging them, we learn to anticipate our reactions to difficult situations or intense moments. This way we will be able to visualize the results that we would prefer and identify the actions that we could implement to channel our feelings in a more assertive way.
In this way, acceptance ceases to be a passive process to become a conscious act that helps us balance emotions to gain inner peace and well-being.
Feldman, L. et. Al. (2015) Unpacking Emotion Differentiation Transforming Unpleasant Experience by Perceiving Distinctions in Negativity. Current Directions in Psychological Science; 24(1): 10-16.
Sheppes, G. (2014) Emotion regulation choice: Theory and findings. En: J. J. Gross (Ed.), Handbook of emotion regulation (pp. 126–139). The Guilford Press.
Muraven, M., Tice, D. M. & Baumeister, R. F. (1998) Self-control as a limited resource: Regulatory depletion patterns. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology; 74: 774-789.