Negative emotions can leave you feeling depleted and stuck. It can become so natural to feel a certain way that it no longer feels possible to change it. The emotional pattern seems to become part of your identity.
Why do negative emotions happen; what is their purpose?
One thing that keeps negative emotional patterns in place is that they serve a purpose in an evolutionary sense, or at least they did serve a purpose at some point or stage in your life.
Take shame as an example. The purpose of shame goes back to the tribal roots of human beings. To be kicked out of the tribe for bad behavior literally meant death. Shame therefore served the purpose of providing a very strong message to the person feeling it that whatever was happening carried the danger of being rejected or kicked out of the group. Needless to say, shame is a very powerful emotion and very painful to feel on a regular basis. It often leads us to want to hide the thing that’s perceived as shameful and hiding it can make it all the worse.
Is the negative emotion still serving its purpose?
It can help to recognize the purpose an emotion is trying to serve. But it’s very important to question whether the emotion is truly serving its purpose now. In many cases the emotion served a purpose at a particular moment or at a particular stage of life, but later becomes part of your identity and is no longer serving a purpose. In fact, the emotion may now be having the opposite effect; damaging rather than protecting.
How do I release or process a negative emotion?
Once you notice that a negative emotional pattern is no longer serving you and that it has perhaps even become part of your identity, you will likely want to know what can be done to change it, or how to get rid of it.
The key to doing this is to “unhook” your sense of identity from the emotion. Think of the analogy of a fish on a hook, the emotion being the fish.
You will need to be in contact with or feeling the emotion in order to unhook from it. As you feel the emotion notice what it feels like. It helps to be talking to someone about it, especially someone who can help by asking questions to keep you focused on the feeling of it, not thinking about it or going into stories about it, but feeling it directly. You can also do this yourself, however, by asking: what does it feel like physically in the body? Describe the feeling in detail – is it heaviness? tension? pressure? tingling? painful? Is it moving or static? What else do you notice about the feeling?
Now a key step: see that part of you is noticing the feeling – in other words, there are two pieces in this experience: “the feeling” and “you” noticing it. You are not it. In this experience, the noticing part of you is separate from the feeling itself.
This experiential realization is what it takes to unhook from the emotion. The emotion is still there, you still feel it and yet there is now a safe space or gap between you seeing it and the feeling itself. Whereas before the emotion overwhelmed you and temporarily took you over, now there is gap.
From there you might notice some thoughts around the emotion. These are beliefs that you hold about yourself, others or the world and they are helping feed the emotion and keep it in place. You might then ask yourself if these thoughts are true? Is there another way you could view the situation?
In this new relationship with the emotion, a new perspective emerges with it. The fish is off the hook, to continue the analogy, and this brings a lot of relief.