How should we deal with negative emotions?


OJO is a brilliant 200 level undergraduate student who is however very shy and withdrawn and is frequently miserable. Tunde, his roommate, finds it very difficult to understand Ojo, as he always seems to have negative emotions all the time. Despite his excellent academic grades, Ojo often feels he is not really good at his studies and always has doubts about his abilities.

He has low self esteem, and will usually blame himself for any and everything that goes wrong. It was only after living together for several months that Tunde realised that Ojo had a baby brother who died when they were in primary school. They were both playing in the compound when the baby brother jumped from a table and hit his head on the floor.

Since then, Ojo believed that he was careless and responsible for his brother’s death. He has been feeling guilty about everything ever since, even though his parents encouraged and supported him at the time. Tunde knew this feeling of guilt was wrong and realised that it was affecting Ojo’s life and functioning.

So when powerful and negative emotions hold us ransom, as in the case of Ojo above, how do we break free? How should we handle negative emotions? While it may appear fairly straight forward, especially when it affects others, it is quite common that you and I may have strong feelings about various situations and circumstances in our life that makes us uncomfortable and we usually just try to suppress them or we react negatively through anger.

It takes some honest thinking or discussion with a therapist to identify what emotions are holding us back or weighing us down in our day to day lives.

Remember that human emotions are very powerful influences of our behaviour. Experiencing strong emotions may push us to take actions we would not have ordinarily done; or they may compel us to avoid situations or persons which generate such strong emotions.

Emotions may be considered as positive or pleasant and enjoyable if they make us feel good about ourselves. On the other hand, emotions may also be considered to be negative or unpleasant if they make us feel uncomfortable.

Negative emotions usually make us uncomfortable by affecting us in some of the following ways:

Dignity and self-respect: Such as when we feel ashamed, embarrassed, criticised, ridiculed, insulted, humiliated, unappreciated e.t.c.

Personal safety is threatened: Such as when we are attacked, afraid, insecure, intimidated, abused or violated, threatened e.t.c.

Integrity and truth: Such as being falsely accused, judged, stereotyped, blamed, cheated, misled, wrongly punished, lied to, e.t.c.

The first step in the handling of negative emotions is to pause and ask ourselves the question: Why am I so angry and worked up? What is exactly making me so humiliated? Why do I feel disrespected because he criticised my work? Why do I feel so badly cheated? In the answers to these questions, lie the seed of examining, accepting and learning from our negative emotions.

Anger, for example, is often a consequence of fear or feeling threatened. The threat may be to our self-respect, ego or our physical safety. So firstly, we experience fear or a threat, and then our anger erupts to protect us from the threat or fear. Or we may feel powerless and become angry to help us re-assert control and influence.

Therefore, the questions to ask here is “why am I so upset and angry?” “In what way do I feel threatened by what has happened?” Thus, when we become angry, and we pause for a minute to consider the root causes of our emotional reaction (anger), we will learn a lot more about our insecurities and the situations that make us afraid or uncomfortable.

This understanding helps us to stay in control of our emotions instead of erupting in anger, and we can then calmly consider the various options to handle the situation.

Feelings of guilt also follow a similar pattern. Guilt stems from internal criticism of self, where you think you have done something or should have done something that is against your personal conscience. So, the questions to consider is whether or not the standards of your conscience are reasonable or not. In the example of Ojo above, it is certainly unreasonable to hold himself responsible for such an unfortunate accident.

Secondly, if we acknowledge that we have wronged another person, admitting same and apologising will also help to lift the feelings of guilt – regardless of whether or not the person accepted the apology.

Similarly, if you are afraid of failure, work hard to achieve success. Afraid of being left alone with no friends or family? Learn to appreciate your loved ones, pay them compliments and don’t always insist that things must always go your way – i.e. make compromises.


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