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August 24, 2016

How your negative feelings can lead to positive change

Daily Briefing

    Editor's note: This popular story from the Daily Briefing's archives was republished on Sept. 17, 2019.

    Feeling sad, mad, or anxious? Don't dismiss your emotions—even negative feelings can be beneficial if you know how to use them, Elizabeth Bernstein writes for the Wall Street Journal.

    Our tips on how to have a productive meeting

    Bernstein explains that in a movement referred to as "the second wave of positive psychology," psychologists are encouraging people to embrace the negative feelings that cause sadness or discomfort instead of ignoring or shying away from them. 

    While some "empty" emotions such as hopelessness, worthlessness, or despair are not productive and can be markers of depression, others, such as guilt, anger, sadness, anxiety, envy, and loneliness, can actually be harnessed for positive action. Identifying those emotions will help you figure out exactly what to do with them, Bernstein says.

    Bernstein shares the following tips for using negative emotions to your advantage:

    Name that feeling

    Sum up your emotion in one word, be it angry, sad, or lonely. If you can't quite figure out the emotion you're feeling, listen to your body and breathe deeply for five to 10 breaths, explained Mariel Diaz, a clinical social worker. You can learn a lot just by tuning into your body: a racing heart often points to anxiety, while a tense jaw is a sign of anger.

    Weigh the pros and cons

    Once you've pinpointed the emotion, think of the behavior that caused you to feel that way, Bernstein suggests. Write a list of all the ways that behavior makes you feel good and all the ways it makes you feel bad. Then compare both sides to determine whether the pros are worth the cons.

    According to psychologist  Dion Metzger, "Feeling bad can be protective because it can tell you what you need to avoid in your life."   

    Pay attention to your inner critic

    Bernstein says to imagine you're listening to a guest at a cocktail party describe her promotion at work. After a few minutes of hearing about her fabulous new job, you become annoyed and feel envious. Your inner critic will tell you what's really eating at you. Maybe your envy shows that you need to work harder to impress your boss or simply need to find another job.

    Go back in time

    Think about the event that triggered your negative emotion then consider the ways that you could have handled the situation differently for a better outcome, Bernstein suggests. If you're feeling blue because you spent the whole weekend alone, think about what would have made it better. Next time, you'll remember to call a friend to make plans or go out to dinner.

    Pretend you're talking to a child

    Imagine that you're speaking to a child who shares your negative emotion. You wouldn't be cold or unkind. Instead, you would be a compassionate listener and speaker, Bernstein says. It's easy to interact with a child in this way, but it's important to be just as gentle to your adult self.

    Tim Lomas, a psychologist and lecturer at the University of East London, said, "If you think of a child in distress, it typically awakens a compassionate response," adding, "You want to help them understand that what they are feeling is OK and normal, and you want to help them cope with it."

    Take it one step at a time

    You may find yourself struggling to change the way you approach negative feelings, but know that it takes time to alter your behavior.

    "You'll need to take it slow, as you would if you were going to change yourself physically, by going on a diet or training for a marathon," Bernstein says (Bernstein, Wall Street Journal, 8/22).

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