Have you been feeling more apprehensive lately about the future of our world? Let’s be honest with the increasing divisions and tensions between people and nations – from the recent US elections, to Brexit and bombings that target the innocent – it’s easy to feel overwhelmed by all that is happening. So in these moments of uncertainty and disharmony, what’s the best way to navigate your negative emotions?
While it can be tempting to suppress or distract yourself from the feelings of apprehension, anger, or sadness you might be feeling, positive psychology researchers Todd Kashdan and Robert Biswas-Diener suggest that these emotions can offer important emotional, mental and social learning opportunities.
“It’s important to listen to the messages your negative emotions are telling you,” explained Robert when I interviewed him recently. “Think of your negative emotions like a telephone ringing with an important message for you. Until you pick up the phone and listen, you can’t really determine what actions will be the most appropriate.”
By understanding that your emotions are legitimate responses to what’s unfolding, and learning to listen to their signals, you can harness the motivational boost they are giving you to take action.
For example, if you’re feeling worried about some of the current changes the world is facing this is your body’s way of telling you that something is not going the way you hoped and needs your immediate attention. It’s why in the immediate weeks following the November US elections, there was a surge of donations to non-profit organizations that addressed the specific concerns that people were worried about.
So how can you tune into the messages that your negative emotions are giving you?
Robert suggests taking these three steps:
- Label your feelings – giving very specific labels for what you’re feeling can help you more easily tolerate the whole range of your emotions. As emotions are multifaceted, this means you may be experiencing not just one, but a complex blend of discrete negative, positive, or a combination comprised of both positive and negative emotions, at any one time.
For example, after the recent elections you may be feeling fearful about what’s going to happen in the future, but also compassion for the people who could be most adversely affected by the changes, and perhaps a little curious as to what will and won’t go wrong.
As soon as you start parsing apart your emotional experience by naming what you’re feeling – even if all the emotions you’re feeling are negative – it takes some of the pain out of what is happening inside of you and makes it less frightening.
- Give yourself permission to feel bad –it’s ok not to feel positive all the time, so accept your negative emotions as just signals telling you how you feel about what’s unfolding. Rather than trying to suppress or get rid of them, give yourself permission to feel what you’re experiencing, to listen to the message it contains and then act in the most appropriate way.
Your anger can signal something or someone you care about is under threat, and can motivate you to stand up to defend your values. If you feel disappointed, it may be telling you to pay attention to how you’re using your resources – do you need to increase your time, energy and input, or is it something you need to learn, grow and move on from? And if you’re feeling guilty, it’s probably saying, you’re violating your own ethics code; and you may need to take action to apologize and reconnect with those you may have offended.
- Look for what you can control – often in challenging situations you can feel anxious about things that you actually have no control over. But by looking for what you can take action on, you will be more likely to constructively respond and process these storms in your life.
You may be feeling apprehensive about your company’s restructuring and downsizing strategies, and have no influence on any eventual outcome. However, the more in control you feel about what happens even if you are laid off – such as updating your resume, reaching out to your networks, tapping into your adaptability and resourcefulness – the better you will cope with the changes.
What can you do to better listen and process the messages of your negative emotions?