How I discovered negativity to be my best friend

A few days into starting kindergarten, I picked up my 4 year old from school and asked her about her day. She responded strongly, “It was bad! I don’t like school.” I asked for more details and she said “I didn’t get a turn playing and I got mad. Other kids said ‘You’re bad’.” And then she added, “Mama, I am bad…I got mad and I threw all the toys.”
As a first time mom, it’s sometimes hard to respond to such outbursts. Over the next few weeks, I had many conversations like that with her after school. I saw her creating a negative image of herself for feeling the human emotions and not knowing how to handle them. I knew I had to find a constructive way to help her deal with this.

As I began reflecting on my daughter’s anger and emotions, I realized that I too experience these moments of frustration and helplessness as an adult — though I am better equipped to deal with it. I reflected on all the times I let my negativity lead to self-doubt and thought about how we ignore these feelings, instead focusing on presenting a happy, unshakable exterior to those around us in the name of looking put together or brave.

Our popular culture has elevated happiness as a goal to be pursued with single mindedness. A good career, a life partner, money, family, luxury — all are ways to eventually become happy. What happens when people do achieve all these goals? They find out that there are times they still feel sad, disappointed, angry and all the other feelings on the spectrum.

Negative emotions serve a purpose. They are indicators — like a compass to learn from.

So, is it even possible to always be in a positive state? Not really. Negative emotions serve a purpose. They are indicators — like a compass to learn from; they can be clues that an important matter needs attention like safety, a relationship, health or any area of your life. If we didn’t feel scared, we wouldn’t be able to keep ourselves safe. If we didn’t feel confused, we wouldn’t seek clarity. If we didn’t feel overwhelmed, we wouldn’t reevaluate our commitments. If we didn’t feel angry, we wouldn’t realize what’s important to us.

Even though negative emotions are so useful in navigating our lives, how did so many of us not learn to navigate them appropriately?

This conditioning for ignoring or considering the negative feelings as wrong starts young. When kids throw a tantrum, adults around them say things like “Behave yourself”, “Be happy with what you have,” “Don’t be mad” or even something like “Good kids don’t do that.” Instead they need to be taught that such feelings are a part of life, everyone has them. It’s not possible to always be happy. It is impossible to avoid negative emotions altogether because things don’t always go as expected in life and we experience setbacks and conflicts. Learning how to cope with those emotions is the key.

Negative emotions control us when not acknowledged.

Negative emotions control us when not acknowledged, we keep feeling them until those are processed. Findings from a 2010 study suggested that suppression of negative emotions could lead to more emotional overeating than simply recognizing that you were, say, upset or frustrated.

A healthier way to deal with negative feelings is to accept them. Learn to differentiate between yourself and your feelings. Learn to understand that feelings always pass. Acknowledge and breathe through them, notice how and where you can feel them in your body, experience them — without trying to change them or react to them. You will then be free of them to be who you really want to be and get clarity on the problem/situation.

For example, if you’re feeling jealous of a colleague or a friend —

  1. The first step would be to accept the feeling without judging yourself or the feeling and breathe through it.
  2. Then maybe ask yourself, “What do I value that the other person has and I don’t?” Most of the time it is not about material things but about important matters like peace of mind, freedom, ease etc.
  3. Then next question to ask could be “How do I prioritize my life to have more of that?”
  4. After understanding that, you might want to ask yourself “What kind of a friend or coworker do I want to be?” or “How do I want to show up?”

I started working with my daughter so she understood that her emotions don’t define her, that it’s ok to be mad, sad, upset, frustrated and whatever she was feeling as she dealt with the intense social challenges in kindergarten. Now a few months later, she loves school and sometimes her recollection of the days include statements like “I was frustrated when my friends were not listening to me” or “I was sad when some kids teased me.” Sometimes that’s the end of the story and other times, she would go on to say something like “I told them I don’t like to be talked to like that.” This change from letting her emotions define her to using those to problem solve has been quite a transformation for me to witness.

I started this research and learning to help my daughter but I ended up helping myself more. Over the last few months, I have found this way of processing feelings to be a very powerful tool for change, a best friend in my personal growth journey. Please comment below about how you might find this information useful or if there are other ways you handle difficult emotions.