Why We Get Stuck in Negative Emotions and How To Break The CycleApr 14, 2023
A recent situation and conversation with a client (shared with permission) reminded me of the popular saying "if you argue for your weaknesses, you get to keep them” (original author unknown).
The client shared that he was struggling emotionally due to the unusually long stretch of gray and rainy weather we were experiencing in our typically sunny Southern California. He said it was affecting his mood and his energy in a negative way and making it difficult for him to complete the tasks that are part of the Mental Fitness Training Program he is participating in or to be productive in general. I acknowledged that it can be challenging and that there’s some scientific data about how weather can affect our emotions.
Then, in an attempt to help him find his power, I asked him how possible it was for him to shift his mindset by trying to find any beauty or gift he could in the gray weather. His immediate response was that I was “mean”. That caught me a little by surprise. How could asking if he is willing to consider something that could help him feel better be mean?
After talking it through, the client was ultimately able to see the benefit of at least looking for something positive about the gray weather, instead of continuing to feel bad about something that he was powerless to change.
After our call, I was thinking about his comment that my suggestion was unkind and realized that probably meant he was feeling pretty attached to and justified about his feelings. I hadn’t said he was wrong or even that his feelings were not valid, I simply asked him to lightly challenge his usual and expected reaction to the grayness by looking for something different. That’s when the saying about arguing for our weaknesses came to mind. I realized it’s the same for emotions.
By defending your negative emotions, you are stuck with those feelings.
Emotions like anger, resentment, frustration, guilt, shame, hopelessness, and fear can be very powerful. If you feed into them, it can easily become a pattern to automatically jump to those feelings. If you find yourself defending the emotions that cause stress, pain or conflict so that you can justify your feelings, you decrease your power to move past them and let go of the negativity so you can experience joy and peace of mind.
It's essential to acknowledge and process negative emotions, but when we argue for and defend them, we actually give them even more power over us. For example, if you're angry with someone and you constantly argue about why you are right to be angry, you are not only reinforcing the negative emotion but also prolonging the negative experience.
You're also creating neural pathways that make you more likely to repeat that pattern. It can become a very unpleasant vicious cycle. This can happen with any emotion, not just anger, and you do not have to be defending the feeling to someone else. We often defend, rationalize and justify our feelings to ourselves in our own minds.
On the other hand, consciously shifting to a positive emotion like gratitude or forgiveness, can make it more likely you will experience more positive outcomes and feel more fulfilled and at peace. Of course, this is not always easy when you are swept up in the intensity of the negative emotions.
One way to break through is by shifting to curiosity and exploration. Rather than dwelling on negative emotions or feeling like you are sugar-coating, dismissing or burying the feelings that your righteous self/ego is attached to, approach the situation with a curious and open mind, seeking to understand the root cause of the problem as well as the source of your feelings.
This can help you shift away from negative emotions and towards finding positive solutions and more importantly, more peace, calm, harmony and happiness.
To help get the curiosity ball rolling, try asking yourself a few exploratory questions. Here are some you might try:
1. What assumptions am I making about this person or situation?
2. What else might be happening that I’m not aware of?
3. What possible gift or benefit could come out of this?
4. How important is this in the big picture?
Just the act of pondering those questions, and especially bringing a little lightness to the "game", can interrupt the thought process and allow you to shift to a more calm, empathetic, and curious state of mind. From there, it’s much easier to choose a happier thought, which leads to a more pleasant feeling.
And that reminds me of another popular quote that seems to wrap up this topic quite nicely…”You can be right or you can be happy.” (credit Gerald Jampolsky). The choice truly is yours. Which would you prefer?
As for my client who was allowing the gray days to get him down, let’s just say he saw the light (pun intended). I started him off with a few things I recognized as gifts from the gray days…
- no sunscreen needed
- colors of plants can appear deeper and richer
- I am reminded to be grateful for my warm home and have compassion for the homeless
That prompted my client to come up with his own wonderful list for the benefits/gifts he can find in gray days…
- cause less evaporative depletion of our reservoirs
- don’t wrinkle the sleeves of my shirt
- less traffic on the bike path
- diffused light makes it easy to take photographs without reflections
- the paint job on my car lasts longer
- pigs are happier on gray days because their mud doesn’t dry out
As you can see, he was even able to insert a little humor into the list. And, of course, that is yet another powerful way to add lightness and positivity to any situation!