Don’t Want to Feel Anger, Sadness or Anxiety Anymore? (Hint: You Won’t Like What Follows)
Too bad, if you are a human, you will feel those feelings as long as you’ll live. No matter what some self-help books claimed. There is a part of our brain which is responsible for the primitive feelings and impulses. It’s unfortunately not possible to turn off that brain part.
Most of us have of course been taught the opposite since we were born. We have learned that it’s not okay to cry. It’s not okay to be afraid. We have got a clear message that we must control our emotions.
Which Control Mechanisms Are You Using Towards Unwanted Emotions?
The control strategies we usually use are perfectly summarized in a great book The Happiness Trap by Russ Harris. See the table below.
|Flight Strategies||Fight Strategies|
|Hiding / Escaping
You avoid situations which cause you unwanted emotions. E.g. you avoid all social situations because you don’t want to feel anxiety.
You command your thoughts and feelings. “Cheer up!” “Stay calm!”. You might try to command yourself to be happy.
You try to distract yourself from unwanted emotions. E.g. you feel overwhelmed and anxious about parenting so you eat a huge cholate bar to keep your mind off difficulties.
You argue with yourself in your thoughts. E.g. you feel like a failure and feel sad, but in your mind you try to convince: “No I’m not, I’m very successful and happy.”
|Zoning Out / Numbing
You try to avoid your emotions by numbing yourself by drugs, alcohol, medication, sleeping excessively or just “staring at the walls”.
You bully yourself and think that would change your feelings. “You idiot, you’re such a loser.” “What a cry-baby.”
You try to suppress unwanted emotions deep down inside you.
These control strategies are fine in some situations and when used moderately. But when used excessively, control strategies can ruin your life. Pick any one of them and imagine the consequences when used all the time.
Using the control strategies towards unwanted emotions can prevent us from doing the things we value.
What do you cherish most in life? Health? Work? Family? Friends? Religion? Sports? Nature? It’s no surprise that life is richer and more fulfilling when we actively invest our time and energy in the things that are most important or meaningful to us. Yet all too often our attempts to avoid unpleasant feelings get in the way of doing what we truly value.
Russ Harris / The Happiness Trap
How to Handle Unwanted Emotions and Thoughts?
The unwanted emotions come along with all sorts of unhelpful thought patterns. How can you possibly live a joyful and fulfilling life with all these bad emotions and negative thoughts?
1. Increase Self-Awareness
By reading this far your self-awareness already grew. You realized something. Now, continue being a curious scientist.
What kind of feelings do you have? Confess yourself having these feelings, if so far you have been using the control strategies towards them.
What kind of thoughts do you have? Start observing. Are your thoughts wise, helpful and true? Often times, they are not.
Is your mind telling you stories? Notice and listen. Are the stories supportive?
2. Practice Accepting & Letting Go of Thoughts
If your thoughts are helpful, perfect. Take the advice. But when the thoughts and stories are not helpful, what then?
Notice the thoughts, but don’t get immersed in them. Here’s how to start, for example (from The Happiness Trap):
- Try naming the stories you’re mind is telling you. “I see, now comes the You’re Life Is a Failure Story. And now follows the You’re Disgusting and Unlovable Story”. The point is to help you not to get immersed in the story. Like it was true and you should live in the story. No.
- Give the negative thoughts the importance they deserve (none). Whether your mind says “you’re a failure” or “you’re a banana”, it’s worth the same. They are just words.
- Thank your mind for the thoughts. This way you notice and accept the thoughts, but you can move on. The same thoughts might come over and over, but every time, just thank your mind and move on to what you really want to focus on.
We can never stop these weird, critizicing and mean thoughts coming to our minds. The stories keep on coming as well. (Probably something to do with evolution.) But we can choose the amount of time we spend with those thoughts and stories.
3. Practice Accepting Feelings
So we also can’t stop the primitive feelings from surfacing. But we have started to notice what kind of feelings we have.
Remember, the more you use the control strategies towards the feeling, the longer you spend time with it. The more you struggle with the feeling, the more pain.
Say you have fear about something. Let the feeling of fear rise and fall. What’s the fear level now? Allow it to be. Make room for it.
Practice taking action anyway. Fear is there. It might even be on level high. But you can do what ever you decide to do. Feelings don’t stop you. Fear might not feel good, but fulfilling life doesn’t always feel good.
You can take action towards living a life according to your values, even though you have feelings. There’s You, and then there are feelings.
4. Stay in the Present Moment
What are you doing now? Shift your attention from your thoughts to what you are doing and experiencing in your life right at this moment.
Immerse yourself totally in the activities you value. Get in flow with your life.
Russ Harris: The Happiness Trap: Stop Struggling, Start Living. Exisle Publishing, 2007.
I highly recommend this book to everyone. It’s full of very practical advice on the topics discussed above and more. If you have a difficult life situation and are struggling with strong emotions and negative thoughts, in this book you’ll find a lot of helpful, simple techniques from Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. The book is about creating a fulfilling and meaningful life, no matter what comes our way.