Have you ever been so afraid of failing an upcoming exam that you avoided thinking about it altogether, becoming increasingly stressed and nervous as the exam approached? Or felt so guilty about having behaved poorly that you avoided the person involved, only to find that your guilt doesn't diminish with time? Been angry and gotten stuck in spiteful thoughts about someone?
Painful feelings such as anger, anxiety, frustration or guilt are often associated with worries about negative consequences -- say that an important goal will be blocked or that you will fail, be criticized, considered selfish or abandoned. The intensity of your feelings and worries can leave you stuck in a cycle of negative emotion, with fear leading to increasingly more fear, anger building on itself.
Emotions, even those that are painful, serve an important purpose in our lives. Fear serves as an alarm. For example, fear of an accident can cause you to avoid getting in a car with a driver who has been drinking. Shame and guilt regulate behavior with regard to moral standards. We will go to great lengths to adhere to social norms and societal rules to avoid feelings of guilt and shame. Anger can motivate us to fight for an important cause or overcome obstacles.
But sometimes we can get stuck. Our fears and anxieties might expand to situations that are not life-threatening or our guilt can fester as we conceal our thoughts and actions from others. These emotions can stick around, damage our relationships and keep us from positive life experiences.
Sometimes the only way to change painful emotions is by changing how you act. The key word here is sometimes. Getting in a car with a drunk driver won't decrease your fear and it may risk your life. But changing how you act will change your levels of fear and anxiety if you are exaggerating or misinterpreting the danger. Anxiety about speaking in public, for example, can be greatly reduced by speaking in public. Usually our fears of criticism are overblown and exaggerated beyond any real disparagement we might encounter.
In the case of anger, it is not important whether you have a legitimate reason to feel angry. Anger often is justified but not helpful. When angry, ask yourself "Is the anger doing me any good?" If it is helping you, say by motivating you to stand up for yourself or causing you to right a wrong, than acting differently will not decrease your anger. But if anger is damaging relationships or making problems worse, changing your actions can have an impact on how you feel.
Changing how you act will only change how you feel if you change both your actions and your thoughts. Speaking in public, all the while thinking "this is awful," "I can't stand it" or "this is a catastrophe" will not reduce anxious feelings about public speaking. Acting kindly toward someone with whom you are angry will not reduce your angry feelings if you are thinking "what a hypocrite" or "I can't stand this person" during the encounter. You have to change your thinking, as well as your behavior. This could mean thinking "I'm nervous, but doing okay" or "I can understand why this person acts as they do, even if I don't agree with it."
Steps to Change Painful Emotions
1. Figure out your emotion. Emotions can be complicated and confusing. Figuring out what you are feeling -- for example, anger, fear, frustration or guilt -- is essential to determining how to change your feeling.
2. Ask yourself what action goes with that emotion. For example, avoidance generally goes with fear; aggression with anger; crying wallowing and staying in bed with sadness; concealment with shameful thoughts or actions and avoidance with guilt and shame.
3. Ask yourself "Do I want to reduce this emotion?" It only makes sense to try to change those feelings you want to change.
4. Figure out what the opposite action is. The opposite of avoidance is approach. The opposite of aggression is kindness or, at the very least, decency. The opposite of wallowing is getting up and getting active. The opposite of hiding is revealing your vulnerabilities.
Remember, in the case of fear and anxiety changing how you act only works if your fear is not justified. In the case of guilt and shame, if you have violated a moral code, acting opposite involves apologizing and making reparations. If you have not violated a moral code, (say you feel guilty when you assert yourself), acting opposite involves doing the action that makes you feel guilty (in this example, asserting yourself), over and over until you no longer feel guilty doing it.
5. Do the opposite action all the way. Throw yourself in to acting differently in both your actions and your thoughts. Acting differently without thinking differently won't work. You have to do both.
The ability to solve life's problems and live the life you want to live sometimes means acting in opposition to your feelings. You may need to approach a feared experience, gently leave a situation that makes you angry, be fair-minded in thoughts about someone who has hurt you, apologize for wrongdoing and make reparations or boldly assert opinions or needs which don't violate the law or your sense of morality. Doing so can release you from painful and long-standing emotions.
Follow Christy Matta, M.A. on Twitter: www.twitter.com/Christy Clark M