Because difficult emotions can be so unpleasant we often try and rid ourselves of them as quickly as possible (I know I did). But we can choose to change our emotions – even the difficult ones. If you do this, you will dramatically change your life.
These difficult or ‘negative’ emotions are the ones we all experience at one time or another, and they fall under three main categories:
- l Anger (rage, frustration, disappointment, resentment).
- l Fear (anxiety, hesitation, doubt, lack of trust in self and others).
- l Sadness (helplessness, victim mentality, apathy, indifference).
Avoiding, suppressing or controlling these difficult emotions takes a great deal of mental and physical energy. More importantly, it also prevents us from moving forwards in our lives, seeing what we can learn from them, and living our best life. Have a look at the list opposite – which of these is your most common ‘go-to’ emotion? Mine is fear and anxiety, and until I experienced CTI’s Process coaching method (a method of taking a client into these emotions instead of avoiding them), they dominated my life.
I often woke up anxious – about the day ahead, what needed to be done, the future, where I would live, what I would do with my career, etc. You can easily see how, when I was constantly feeling like this (and trying so hard not to), I wasn’t going to be getting much else done – let alone look at what I might be able to do in the future. By processing these emotions (going to them, allowing them to flow through my body, being with them), they no longer control me – most of the time
Emotions as information
In his book, Magnificent Addiction, Philip Kavanaugh Ph.D., says that it is our need to control these negative emotions that is at the root of all addiction. Indeed, he says that it is often the control of negative emotions that is the ‘master addiction’. The theory is that often, from a young age, we are taught not to be with these emotions: not to feel angry, not to feel upset. How many times have you heard people say, ‘Don’t cry’? We may even have been rewarded with a sweet treat to stop us from feeling upset or hurt (now there’s an obvious link to comfort eating).
Feeling these negative emotions often become seen as bad – and shame is then added on top of the emotion itself. Most of the time, the intention of those around us and their response to us is not malicious – they just don’t want us to feel sad, or simply can’t be with those emotions themselves. The irony is that if we were allowed to feel the emotion, it would pass relatively quickly. It’s said that any emotion takes approximately 20–30 seconds to run its course through our body. You can see it when a young child is allowed to cry they bounce back very quickly.
By robbing ourselves of having this full experience – of feeling and experiencing everything, good or bad – we are robbing ourselves of having the best life possible in its fullest range. We are also denying ourselves the information that these emotions provide. There is a theory in neuroscience known as the Embodied Brain, which holds that we have a whole nervous system in our gut (commonly referred to as our intuition), a neural system in our heart (referred to as having feelings in our heart), and that all of the information and emotions from those neural systems feeds into our brain via the vagus nerve. By ignoring all of our (often physical) negative emotions, feelings and sensations, we are thus ignoring a wealth of vital information, and narrowing our learning and experience of life.
The link to illness
When this happens, we are both denying ourselves the information being sent via these emotions, and denying our bodies the natural physiological process of release. How many times have you experienced this, – just by allowing yourself to have a good cry – don’t you always feel just that little bit better and more optimistic after? If we do not allow our bodies to do this, to discharge these feelings freely, these blocked emotions will drain our mental energy, and can even lead to serious health problems. Numerous studies have shown that negative feelings and attitudes can create stress, which depletes the brain chemicals required for happiness, and damages the immune system. Stress has also been shown to reduce our life span, affecting our DNA strands and causing us to age more quickly. Poorly managed or repressed anger has also been linked to several conditions, such as high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease and digestive disorders. High levels of cynicism in later life have been linked to both a greater risk of dementia and heart disease, as well as earlier death in women. Hostility (being antagonistic, bitter, unkind and angry towards others), has been linked with a higher risk of stroke.
Then there’s depression, which has been linked to an increased risk for Type 2 diabetes, heart attack, and disability in later life. That’s quite a list. One theory is that when you’re stressed or depressed, cortisol levels increase, making your immune system less able to control inflammation in the body, which may lead to disease over time. I would also argue that when you feel low, you are more likely to smoke or drink, and less likely to exercise or take good care of yourself, and this, in turn, has a negative impact on your brain and body. Louise Hay, the world-renowned teacher and lecturer on self-healing, goes one stage further.
In her best-selling books Heal Your Body and You Can Heal Your Life, she lists and directly links, specific negative emotions and thoughts with physical ailments. After being diagnosed with ‘incurable’ cervical cancer in the 1970s, she concluded that holding on to resentment about her childhood abuse and rape had contributed to its onset. She reported how she refused conventional medical treatment, and cured her cancer with a regime of forgiveness, therapy, nutrition, reflexology and colonic enemas.
This has certainly struck a chord with many, as have her recommendations to replace negative thoughts with new, positive affirmations. Whatever your thoughts about this, don’t you think it might be a good idea to experience a few seconds of unpleasantness for the sake of a whole lot of learning and richer, healthier life? If not, let me put it this way: if you don’t want to feel bad, where you ‘can’t go’ is exactly where you need to go. If you don’t want to be plagued by worry – go there. If you can no longer stand the disappointment you feel about how your life has turned out – go there. If you hate feeling so angry all of the time – go there.
If you’re scared of risk and about taking the next step – go there. If you don’t, you will spend so much time and energy trying to avoid these feelings that your life will be dominated by denial and avoidance. Your life will also become limited. You are much more likely to behave in destructive ways, and to use various avoidance or ‘sticking plaster’ techniques, which give a temporary sense of relief and suppress those negative emotions. Drinking, working excessive hours, drug-taking, ‘comfort’ eating, social media addiction, sex, shopping. All of these things give us a temporary hit of the feel-good hormone dopamine, but the problem is that you have to keep doing them more and more, and the emotion you are trying to distract yourself from will still keep coming back.
What kind of life do you want to live? One full of negative emotions and denial, plus any number of destructive, life-numbing avoidance behaviours? Or do you choose to live with these emotions, allowing them to work their way through your body and dissipate, and discovering and learning what they are trying to teach you? If you’re ready for the latter, look at the three-part process on the following pages, which explain how to deal with and shift negative emotions.
‘It’s the hiding, denying, submerging that gets clients into trouble … when they do go in, they discover more about themselves, become more resourceful, and release energy in the emotion – what we refer to as e-motion – to motivate new movement.’
HENRY KIMSEY-HOUSE, KAREN KIMSEY-HOUSE, PHILIP SANDAHL AND LAURA WHITWORTH
SIT WITH IT
I am going to invite you to do something completely counter-intuitive. Instead of avoiding a negative emotion and trying to get rid of it as quickly as possible, I am going to ask you to do the exact opposite – sit with it. Find a comfortable, quiet space where you won’t be interrupted.
Go to a difficult emotion you feel about something that’s happening in your life. As soon as you are aware of this emotion, take a moment and accept it; you can even state (internally or externally) ‘I feel angry’ or ‘I feel sad’. The key here is not to try and escape from it or push it away – this is what often happens, and that is why the pause is helpful here. Identify the emotion and write it down.
Once you have taken the big steps of accepting and identifying the emotion, next (and this is usually the frightening bit we don’t do) let it run through your body. Allow yourself to feel it. Go to where it is in your body – and although it will feel scary, know that nothing bad is actually going to happen to you. You may experience the emotion as a tight feeling in your chest, an ache in your stomach, a constriction in your throat, but however you do, really let yourself go there, give it your full attention. Notice it and be curious: what colour is it? What is its texture? Is it moving? Is it solid or made up of many different particles? Once you have done this, breathe down into it, and allow the breath to fill it up with new, fresh air. Notice what happens to it: what happens to the shape, the texture, its density? While you are doing this, your brain will try and pull you away – this is all normal, but just keep coming back to where you are consciously focusing your attention. It is the act of going there and staying there (versus avoidance or suppression) that is important. Courage and patience is required – but it is worth it, I promise you. When you have done this successfully, you will ultimately feel that shift, that dissipation, that sense of calm.
What is this emotion telling me? What is the message? What’s possible from here?
What is the one thing I need to accept about this situation?
What is one thing I can do about this situation?
All emotions are messages from the body. The next time you receive one of these messages, I ask that you try this process, and in doing so choose another way to feel and be
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