We all experience “negative” emotions. Anger, sadness, fear, frustration—they’re part of everyday life. But how do you keep those feelings in check? And is there a way to use these emotions to your advantage?
You can manage negative emotions by first identifying the reason why you are feeling the way you do. Once you understand the reasons behind your emotions, you can use that information to help you take action and change things for the better.
For example, negative emotions could be a sign of a physical problem. If you’re hungry, maybe you’re experiencing a drop in blood sugar that’s putting you in a bad mood. If you’re tired, you may be especially irritable. The solution in these cases is simple: Get something to eat or get some rest, as soon as possible.
But often, there’s a deeper reason for negative emotions.
In her book Emotional Agility, author Susan David shared an interesting story. As David’s coaching consultancy took off, she began traveling the world to meet clients. One day, as she sat in a posh hotel room observing the beautiful view and enjoying room service, she felt pangs of guilt.
The problem? She felt bad that she was away from her family.
“I have realized that my guilt can help me set my priorities and sometimes realign my actions,” David writes. “My on-the-road guilt signals to me that I miss my children and value my family. It reminds me that my life is heading in the right direction when I’m spending more time with them. My guilt is a flashing arrow pointing toward the people I love and the life I want to lead.”
This is just one example that illustrates how understanding your emotions can help you learn to deal with them. When you identify the reasons behind your negative emotions, you build self-awareness. You can then use that knowledge to motivate you to make a change. That’s what we call self-management.
Let’s consider more examples of how emotional intelligence can help you deal with negative emotions.
How can I control my anger?
Anger is like fire. It can be a useful tool, or it can be very destructive.
The truth is, there are plenty of instances when you’re right to get angry.
Let’s say a colleague of yours really gets to you. They’re thoughtless, disrespectful—always taking, and never giving.
You’ve looked the other way before, but now you’ve had enough.
The anger you feel is actually producing something positive: It’s helping you to speak up when needed. But how do you move forward? Do you simply walk into a room and start berating your colleague, calling them out in front of everyone?
Not only will this be embarrassing to your colleague, it will make the atmosphere at work very awkward. It could damage your reputation. Not to mention that your colleague will hate you, and may try to look for revenge.
In contrast, what if you took time to think through your actions? This could help you develop a much more effective strategy. Of course, that’s not easy to do in the heat of the moment. But there’s an emotionally intelligent approach to managing anger, and it goes like this:
Leave. If you feel your emotions getting out of control, leave. Go for a walk, listen to some calming music, do whatever you can to give yourself some time away from the situation—before you say or do something you regret.
Take a few deep breaths. According to the American Psychological Association (APA), one of the quickest ways to reduce your anger is to do some deep breathing. You can also try to repeat a calming word or phrase (such as “relax,” “let it go,” or “take it easy”).
Come back later. Once you’ve had a chance to calm down, you can plan how you want to address the situation.
- How can I express myself in a way that the other person can understand, and that will actually make them think?
- What is the best place and time that I can approach the person?
Your goal shouldn’t be just to shame the person. Rather, you want to inspire change.
Of course, there will be times when you should respond immediately. For instance, if you witness bullying or other abuse. But if that’s not the case, taking time to cool down and plan your next steps can help you tame the fire and use your anger as a tool—instead of allowing it to burn down the house.
How do I stop from feeling so sad?
Sadness is powerful, and it can really affect your quality of life.
But can you actually make sadness work for you?
Like anger, you can also use sadness as a motivating force. For example, if you’re sad because you miss someone, or because you’ve done something to hurt or upset them, you can use your sadness to give you determination—to make things up to the person, or simply to make more time for them.
And if the person is truly out of your life, then use your feeling of sadness as motivation to do more for others who are important to you.
NOTE: If you’re experiencing an extreme, extended bout of sadness, you may be suffering from clinical depression. In this case, talk to someone about seeking help from a mental health professional.
How can I face my fears?
Fear is an unpleasant emotion caused by the belief that someone or something is dangerous. But identifying and acknowledging our fears helps us to face them—and can keep others from playing on them.
For example, we fear what we know little about, or when we are unprepared. Recognizing this can motivate us to educate and prepare ourselves about the person or thing that is causing our fear.
You may also feel fear when it comes time to make a tough decision.
If that’s the challenge you’re facing, ask yourself:
What advice would I give another person in this situation?
This question helps because we often see things much differently once we remove ourselves from the picture.
Psychologist Ellen Hendriksen shares another technique that can help.
“To make a tough decision,” says Hendriksen,” sometimes it can be helpful to test the waters of both outcomes by imagining you don’t have a choice. For instance, pretend you’re trying to decide between staying or walking from a less-than-stellar job. First, pretend all other jobs in the universe vaporize. You have to stay in your job. How would you feel?”
“Next, go the opposite route: Pretend your position is cut. You have to look for another job. Now how would you feel? Take your feelings and use them as information to make your decision.”
How can I deal with anxiety?
You can deal with normal levels of anxiety by learning how to recategorize your feelings.
“Recategorization is a tool of the emotion expert,” explains neuroscientist and psychology professor Lisa Feldman Barrett in her book, How Emotions Are Made.
If you’re about to take a test and feel worked up, for example, Barrett explains there are two ways to categorize your feelings.
One is harmful: “Oh no, I’m doomed!”
The other is helpful: “I’m excited and ready to go!”
Research confirms the value of this practice. In one study, researchers instructed participants to say “I am anxious,” “I am excited,” or nothing before performing high-stress tasks like public speaking or singing karaoke. The participants who recategorized their anxiety as excitement spoke and sang more confidently and persuasively than the others.
How do I handle a really bad day?
Sometimes, though, despite your best efforts…everything just seems to go wrong.
Julia is a clinical therapist. It’s her job to help others deal with negative emotions. But after an especially bad day, Julia was the one who needed help.
Her day began with a car accident, when another car backed into hers in the mall parking lot, with her four-year-old in the back seat. That was followed by an hour-and-a-half phone call with the insurance company. And to top things off, that evening, the toilet broke. Julia and her husband labored until 1:30 in the morning trying to get it fixed.
“Sometimes when I have a bad day, I can laugh it off and be fine with it all,” Julia said. “But not this time. This time, all was not well.”
“But spiraling down into a pity party, or blaming or criticizing myself for having negative feelings, wasn’t going to do much good. So, instead of getting myself even more worked up and judging myself…I took some deep breaths, acknowledged and accepted the feelings, and reminded myself that they, like everything else, would be temporary—and that I would get through this.”
Julia concluded her story with some true words of wisdom:
“Instead of fighting ourselves, we acknowledge and accept ourselves as humans who feel all the feelings. And none of them are permanent. And we’re not weird, broken, or flawed for having them.” “Just human.”
Negative feelings aren’t always negative
Remember, negative emotions don’t feel good, but they can be useful if you know what to do with them.
“Don’t view negative emotions as a storm that you always have to steer around,” says my colleague, Jason Giove. “Instead, see them as a compass that can provide valuable feedback—and help you find your way.”
Now that’s what I call turning emotional, into emotionally intelligent.