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A friend of mine recently asked me, “What can I do with all my negative feelings?”
While we all might want to use distractions, compartmentalizing, and a positive attitude to maintain stability right now, we also have to take time to tend to our negative emotions. Most of us are feeling varying amounts of fear, frustration, sadness, helplessness, and loneliness.
We are witnessing and experiencing daily trauma and still distancing from loved ones—there is just so much pain piling up. We can’t simply focus on the positives to get through our pain; we must balance facing the negative emotions and focusing on the positives.
Here are some suggestions on how to handle more difficult emotions (when you have the time and emotional energy to turn inward):
>> Don’t “second arrow” yourself.
The Buddhist concept is that there are two arrows: the first is the one life shoots at us, and we cannot control it. We are human, and life is imperfect, there will be pain, discomfort, stress, and loss. The second arrow is in our hands, and we have control over whether to shoot it or not. This arrow is our reaction to the first—our response to pain, discomfort, stress, loss.
Daily life during this pandemic is filled with first arrows. We should notice them and tend to our wounds. As much as possible, we have to try not to add suffering to our daily pains. Panic, self-pity, hopelessness, and self-harming are all forms of second arrows. We might need help in dropping some of our second arrows, but this awareness can help us to be mindful rather than reactive as we experience challenges.
>> Let it pass—the 90 seconds.
This is how long it takes our brain to process a negative emotion. In Stroke of Insight, Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor explains that when we react to something distressing that occurs in our environment, our brain releases chemicals through our body. That reaction process takes 90 seconds.
Beyond that, our negative feelings are due to our own thoughts or behaviors, which reinforce the negative emotion (hint: the second arrow). If we can step back for 90 seconds and take note of the emotional reaction in our bodies, and let it pass, we can greatly simplify our experience with the negative feeling.
>> Use compassion.
Speak to yourself as you would speak to a dear friend, loved one, or a child who was in pain. You would most likely listen and advise them in a way that showed acceptance, affection, concern, and encouragement. We often speak more kindly and offer more constructive help to others than we do for ourselves because we can be more objective.
So imagine your wisest, most reliable, adult self speaking to your struggling, scared, childlike self. Speak to that self with compassion and care regarding the negative experiences.
>> Ask yourself what you need.
Instead of a second arrow, if you’re feeling badly beyond the intense 90-second emotional reaction to a stressor, ask yourself honestly what your needs are.
Do you need a hug? To feel heard or validated? Do you need to scream or vent? To journal and look at your feelings in words? To ask for professional help?
Ask what you can do for yourself, don’t push away the feeling. Tend to it or work through it.
>> Use different outlets.
Sometimes our bad feelings want out, and talking doesn’t make us feel better (or we don’t feel comfortable talking about the feelings). Use other outlets to work through this. Journaling, art, and movement can all help us process emotions without talking. Write your feelings down, draw or paint them, or get moving. Yoga and other exercises can help us move feelings through our bodies rather than getting trapped in our tense muscles.
>> Set parameters.
Even though this post is about facing feelings head-on rather than distracting ourselves from them, we need boundaries on processing our pain. Whatever outlet you choose, commit to a designated amount of time on it, and then if the feeling is not resolved, “bookmark” it. Come back to it the following day. We have to look at our difficult emotions but within a window of time where the discomfort of facing the feelings is tolerable and doesn’t take over our thoughts or interactions.
Be patient with yourself as you work through your feelings. Remember that help is available if you need it, especially if you are on the pandemic or current social justice movement’s frontlines. Remember to take breaks and care for yourself emotionally. Just like an athlete’s body needs check-ups and rest, you can help more if you start from a place of self-awareness and health.
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