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Use your “negative” emotions to empower your life

Do you think that being sad is a sign of weakness or that allowing yourself to feel anger is destructive? Do you bury your hurt or pain? Do you avoid “negative emotions? If so, you may be losing important information and psychic energy that could empower your life.

Many of us equate emotions with behavior and in trying to avoid conflict or the “negative” expression of emotion we actually disavow the experience of emotions. So perhaps, the questions is: Is there a difference between emotion and behavior? Can we feel angry and not engage in unproductive/destructive behaviors? Can we feel sad and not lose our strength? You may ask, why do people have angry outbursts, or become paralyzed when they get anxious or choose unhealthy behaviors when “negative” emotions come up? Furthermore, why should we feel these aversive feelings in the first place?

We know from neuroscientific research that emotions are hard wired in the part of our brain that we share with other mammals. So, whether we like it or not, we feel them and whether we acknowledge or recognize emotions or not, they affect our behavior. For example, in his book Affective Neuroscience, Panksepp explains that there “is good biological evidence for at least seven innate emotional systems….” which are genetically encoded into the subcortical neuro-circuitry of the mammalian brain. These are SEEKING (expectancy,anticipation, desire); RAGE (frustration, anger, body surface irritation, restraint, indignation); FEAR (anxiety, pain, threat, foreboding); PANIC/GRIEF (separation distress, social loss, loneliness); PLAY (rough-and tumble carefree play, joy); LUST (mating,copulation); CARE (nurturance).

Perhaps, the wish for disavowal of emotions lies in (i) how we view emotions, and (ii) whether we recognize them as separate from our behavioral responses. Thus, if we can view emotions as information providing systems rather than value laden and therefore, desirable vs undesirable or positive vs negative, then we can use them to enhance our lives. In particular, we can consciously increase behaviors that intensify and prolong “happiness” emotions (such as seeking, play, and care in Panksepp’s system) and adaptively respond to the emotions that we call “negative” or “aversive” (such as rage, fear, panic or loss).

When emotions are unrecognized, we lose our capacity to use them intentionally. We engage in behaviors that are driven purely by the physiologically based action tendencies of those emotions which are automatic and physiologically driven. For example, fear primes us to fight or flee. Similarly anger primes us to act while sadness pushes us to withdraw. For example, if we do not notice that some thought or event has led us to feel disconnected from our partner and triggered the fear of abandonment, we may react automatically to the fear with a fight/flight response. We may therefore become verbally nasty/withdrawn much in the same way as if a lion was standing in front of us triggering our physiological fear response. If instead we can recognize what we are feeling, we then have a choice with respect to our behavior. We might be able to calm our emotionally activated nervous system and ask our partner for connection in a way that will be inviting and likely to receive a positive response.

The goal is to drive a cognitive wedge between emotions and behavior. Use your emotions as signals, use your cognitions to understand the information your body is signaling and use your behaviors to build a life that supports you. Use your cognitions to help you integrate i.e. understand your emotions and choose your activities in the world. How does one become aware of emotions? Here are some strategies.
1. The simple answer is to slow down and yet, it is the most difficult thing to do.
2. Give yourself at least 20-30 mins of active self-soothing before you react to a situation. Self- soothing can take the form of deep breathing, doing something that gives you pleasure or a sense of competence, connecting with someone who makes you feel good, recollecting a memory of a happy moment, exercising, thinking about positive moments in the day, doing something positive for others or yourself.
3. Cultivate the attitude of curiosity and interest in yourself rather than judgment and condemnation.
4. Employ retroactive analysis. At first, you will need to revisit events in which you have already “behaved” and see if you can deconstruct them. Ask yourself, “what happened here? Can I go back and figure out what I was feeling?” Write down thoughts and feelings to the best of your ability and see if you can see the link between your behavior and the emotion that had come up for you. Ask yourself, does this behavior support me or could I have chosen another action? After you have completed a few such analyses you will start to see a pattern emerge.
5. Over time and with lots of practice, you will start to see and understand your emotions clearly and use them to guide your behavior to support your wellbeing.