Kyle Lawell, Licensed Professional Counselor

It’s common for us to grow up being told to “look on the bright side” or “focus on the positives,” but this mentality may not be as useful as we always want it to. Susan David, instructor in psychology at Harvard University, suggests in her TED Talk on saying yes to negative emotions that the act of avoiding or suppressing our negative emotions actually impacts our ability to effectively interact and deal with the world as it is! When we focus on being positive despite accepting the reality of our world, we are likely to experience lower levels of wellbeing and resilience while also feeling more depressed and anxious. It can be useful to think about avoiding difficult emotions in terms of procrastination. When we procrastinate taking out the garbage, it feels good initially because we are avoiding the hassle of dragging bags of trash outside. But what would happen if we completely avoided taking out the trash at all? Our home would be cluttered, dirty, and uncomfortable to live in. The same can be said when we avoid experiencing difficult emotions. It may feel nice to avoid feelings of sadness about a relationship ending by drinking with our friends, but what happens after we do that for so long? These feelings begin to weigh us down and eventually negatively impact how we live our lives. David suggests that while it may feel counterintuitive initially, we would benefit from taking the time to acknowledge and give meaning to our difficult emotions. Instead of solely focusing on our positive emotions, David suggests these steps to deal with a difficult emotion instead:

  1. Effectively identify and label the difficult emotion: we are not wrong when we come home from work and feel stressed about the day we had. But this feeling of stress can be more useful and effective at telling us what we need if we identify exactly what about work is making us stressed. Are we stressed because our boss gave us more work than one person can take on? Are we stressed because we disappointed our boss during an important meeting? When we appropriately identify and label the negative emotions we are experiencing, we have a better understanding of what is actually causing us emotional discomfort.  
  2. Notice the emotion with compassion: Now that we have given a name and some meaning to the difficult emotion we are experiencing, it is important to approach that emotion with compassion. By being compassionate toward our self when we are feeling a negative emotion, we provide ourselves with the space and capacity to explore and engage with the world more openly, effectively, and authentically. 
  3. Notice the emotional story for what it is: What is crucially important when processing our difficult emotions is that we accept them for what they are: emotions. When we can remember and acknowledge that we are not our emotions, our emotions are actually a small part of who we are, we can bring other dimensions of our self into the story we are creating of our self—such as our beliefs and values. When we say, “I am noticing feelings of disappointment and anger within myself,” we can distinguish ourselves from our emotions and more effectively address what is making us feel this way. 

Purposefully acknowledging and understanding our difficult emotions is not always a pleasant experience, and it can even feel impossible to do if it’s what we’ve done for so long. If you find yourself trying to run away from your difficult emotions, consider reaching out to Symmetry Counseling where one of our licensed counselors will guide and support you through that process.