Do you feel like your negative emotions control you?
My negative emotions used to grab me, throw me into a car and recklessly drive my life.
Of course, I kicked and shouted. But trying to resist, change or avoid my negative emotions didn’t help one bit.
I eventually realized that we can’t get rid of negative thoughts and emotions. They are a part of life.
But that doesn’t mean we’re helpless when they arise.
We won’t be able to live a life without anger, guilt and disappointment. Yet we can learn how to let painful emotions flow—and thus, lessen their grip on us.
From this fertile ground of acceptance, we can then make wiser decisions and take effective action to improve our lives, if need be.
So, how do we begin accepting our negative emotions?
It’s not as obvious as it seems.
First, we must become aware of our negative emotions. One way to do that is to notice our negative emotional reactions like blaming, over-apologizing and withdrawing.
This then guides us to the heart of negative emotions—the messages they carry about our needs, wants and past hurts that require healing.
As you recognize your own negative emotional reactions in the list below, breathe deeply and have compassion for yourself.
1. Acting angry. Snapping at people, yelling, threatening, swearing, being violent and storming out.
2. Arguing. Needing to prove that you’re right. Feeling superior to others. Making a scene.
3. Criticizing, judging or blaming. Feeling offended. Taking things personally.
4. Overanalyzing. Jumping to conclusions. Assuming other people’s thoughts, actions or intentions. Expecting the worst.
5. Being deliberately negative. Gossiping. Complaining. Making unfriendly, annoying, resentful or sarcastic remarks.
Accept + Learn
“Fight” emotional reactions use force to gain control of a situation or person. You feel superior or invulnerable in the moment, but you’re actually feeling hurt, afraid, sad or vulnerable.
You believe that if you “fight” by acting stronger, better or more right than the other person, you’ll be able to cope.
Please stop denying your vulnerability. You’re allowed to feel soft and tender.
Then, ask yourself:
- What’s making me feel hurt, afraid, sad or vulnerable?
- Where am I holding judgments on myself?
- What are my boundaries? When did I cross them?
In my first blog article, I talked about how I grew up with parents who unmercifully criticized me.
Yet over time I became a raging critic myself! Nothing was ever good enough for me. Life kicked me in the butt many times before I stopped breathing fire.
Turns out, I was deeply hurt and hiding from a fear of never being good enough. It took me years to heal.
And you know what? I still need to remind myself once in a while that I’m good enough. Practice, practice, practice.
Fold + Stay
6. Peacekeeping. Putting up with bad treatment. Being pleasant or obedient to avoid conflict.
7. Excusing others. Bending over backwards to understand, excuse or forgive others.
8. Caretaking with strings attached. Taking care of others to feel better about your situation; when you don’t get recognition, you’re upset.
9. Over-apologizing to reduce blame and avoid offending others.
10. Constantly doubting yourself. Feeling inferior to others and not believing in yourself and your capacities.
Accept + Learn
You’re afraid of being alone or abandoned. You believe that you’re somehow powerless, helpless or unable to cope. In relation to the other person, you believe that you’re weaker, lesser or not as good as them.
You’ve internalized other people’s beliefs about who you should be and/or who you are. Reconnect with yourself and see what truly speaks to you and what doesn’t.
You’re worthy and have much to offer even if you don’t quite believe it yet.
- Which thoughts disempower me?
- Where else in my life do I have disempowering thoughts?
- How would my life look if I stopped making myself smaller?
Imagine reaching for some lettuce at a grocery store. Someone cuts you off and grabs a head of lettuce. What do you do?
I used to apologize. Even though it was the other person’s fault. According to this NY Times article, it’s typical of women to apologize for our existence.
I apologized all the time. I’d get the same drink as my husband (even though I wanted a different one) to avoid bothering our hosts. I’d censor myself or, on the contrary, over-explain my opinions.
Spotting the countless ways I made myself smaller empowered me to change.
11. Distancing. Walking away. Moving to another place. Blocking contact.
12. Escaping dramatically. Rushing out of the room crying or in panic.
13. Wallowing in your hurts. Yes, some use their pain to avoid more pain. See why here.
14. Acting confused. Pretending to not understand what’s going on to avoid facing reality.
Accept + Learn
We’ve all heard of “fight or flight”.
“Flight” reactions are about escaping from an uncomfortable situation, which temporarily alleviates the hurt, sadness or fear. It hurts so much that it seems easier to flee.
But, believe it or not, escaping our pain and fears amplifies them. Emotions need to flow. When you attach too much importance to your emotions (by denying or identifying with them), you’re not letting them flow.
Let go. Allow the discomfort to go through you.
- Which emotional wounds or fears am I running away from?
- What if this were an opportunity to change and see things differently?
- What needs to happen for me to stop fleeing?
Ah, story of my (young adult) life! When I could no longer take my parents’ nonstop criticism, I distanced myself. I moved to France, where I could live life on my terms.
But when the afterglow rubbed off, I realized that I was still fleeing… in my mind. My own voice echoed my parents’ criticism. Each achievement crumbled away as the bar of expectations rose higher and higher.
I only began feeling peaceful when I accepted my fears and dismantled my inner critic.
15. Blanking out. Functioning on autopilot. Having your mind go blank, so that you don’t have to think, cope or decide.
16. Clamming up. Not knowing what to say/do. Or not being able to say/do anything.
17. Shutting down. Feeling trapped and frozen or even fainting. Deer-in-the-headlights.
18. Losing hope. Feeling so helpless that there’s no motivation to fix things.
Accept + Learn
Have you heard of “freeze” as a response to stress?
It’s when you stuff down your negative emotions and deflect attention away from yourself to avoid feeling powerless. You’ve come to believe that you’re incapable of coping.
- What am I feeling right now? How does that feel in my body?
- What’s one positive thing that I can do to resolve this difficult situation?
- What’s my next (baby) step?
When I was little, I’d clam up whenever an adult yelled at me. I remember feeling afraid and totally lost as to what to say or do. So I blamed myself, It’s my fault. I can’t do anything right.
As an adult, I had no idea that that habit stayed with me till I got into some heated arguments with my partner. I trained myself to pay attention to my body’s reactions during conflicts, which helped me center myself and express my feelings.
19. Claiming everything’s fine. Brushing off your problems. Vehemently avoiding talking about how you feel with loved ones. Refusing help. Perfectionism.
20. Being cold. Denying your feelings so that you seem unemotional or invincible.
21. Joking around. Deflecting attention away from your fear, pain, sadness or anger via humor.
22. Showing off. Trying to make a good impression on others through your possessions, appearance, status, abilities, etc.
23. Forging ahead. Being extremely focused on what’s ahead and driven to reach your goals despite how awful you feel.
Accept + Learn
Somewhere along the line, you learned that it’s too risky to show that you’re vulnerable. After all, having a thick skin has gotten you far in life.
But when it comes to loved ones, a thick skin can keep you from truly enjoying their company and deepening your relationships. You’re also likely avoiding your own feelings, which of course doesn’t help.
Allow yourself to feel vulnerable. Feel the fear of feeling vulnerable.
- What’s unpleasant in this moment?
- When was the last time I felt like this? How did I react? What were the results?
- How would my life look if I kept acting like everything’s fine forever?
A friend of mine, after confiding to me about her personal problems, systematically reassures me by saying, Everything’s fine! It’s no big deal.
It’s not easy being vulnerable, even with loved ones.
I used to make my life seem perfect when I talked to friends and family because I was afraid of being judged. But I couldn’t hide the truth for very long, as I felt miserable.
When I finally did share details of my life with friends and family, I found both support and criticism. But I felt lighter and happier being myself and some of my relationships have deepened since I’ve opened up.
24. Abusing substances. Finding refuge in alcohol, drugs or cigarettes.
25. Denying reality. Keeping a stiff upper lip or forcing yourself to think only positive thoughts.
26. Distracting yourself with activities. Includes eating, having sex, gambling and imagining a fantasy world, but you can also use work, studies, sports or hobbies to avoid pain or contact.
27. Giving up. Never wanting to do that ever again. Playing safe instead of taking risks.
Accept + Learn
“Forget It” emotional reactions are no different from the rest: they allow you to momentarily avoid emotional pain, fears, discussion or action.
Occupying yourself with work, sports or hobbies can be a healthy coping mechanism, but be honest with yourself: Am I using this activity to avoid pain/reality? Or to help me heal, move on and feel fulfilled?
Always allow the pain or fear. This is the most essential thing.
- What am I avoiding in the present moment?
- What are others’ expectations of me? What do I really want?
- What can I learn from this situation?
I used to throw myself into work whenever life got tough. The logic behind that? Well, feeling crappy won’t get me anywhere. So, get to work, Annie! And off I went to accomplish all my tasks.
At the end of the day, I felt proud of my machine-like efficacity, but also mentally exhausted. Imagine doing that day after day for years… umm, burnout! Life forced me to slow down to see what I was avoiding all along.
Turns out, I was denying how much old experiences still hurt; overworking compensated for my lack of self-esteem.
Slowly but surely, I unpacked and accepted each and every one of those past hurts. This has been primordial for my happiness today.
So, how many ways do you avoid your negative emotions?
Guess how many I’ve been guilty of?
All of them!
Everyone tends to avoid their negative emotions. It helps us cope in difficult situations. So, let’s stop judging ourselves.
Life would be intolerable if you had to deal with all your troubles in one go. We need time to digest our feelings, get new perspectives and find solutions.
But when we feel like a prisoner to our negative emotions, that’s a STOP sign. It means we should take care of ourselves and our emotions.
So, observe those painful feelings.
They’re waiting for you to accept them.
Then, you can be on your way.
Then, you can be free.
About the author
Annie Moussu is a mindfulness-based life coach who helps women let go of perfectionism, self-doubt and people-pleasing. Sign up for her newsletter to get blog articles twice a month.