Many self-help authors, psychologists and spiritual teachers suggest avoiding negative emotions such as anger, anxiety, depression, sadness, and guilt. However, I think their recommendations are incomplete and potentially unhelpful because they fail to understand the complexity of emotion….
First, many fail to understand that emotions are not black or white. Rather, there is a range of intensity in emotions. For example, a person is not either angry or not angry or in fear or not in fear. Rather, anger could be on a continuum of intensity ranging on a scale of 1 – 10, with 1-3 representing no anger (or perhaps repressed, denied or passive anger) to 4-6 representing mild or controlled anger. This range may represent assertive anger, where expressing your anger in a calm and direct manner can address an injustice or boundary violation and prevent future injustices or future boundary violations. However, anger ranging in 7 – 10 intensity range may be considered extreme or aggressive anger, which is usually characterized by anger controlling you to leading to acts of aggression such as yelling, intimidation, threats, insults, and violence and feelings of guilt or regret after the uncontrolled expression of extreme anger.
Thus, anger, and all emotions (grief, anxiety, depression) vary in their range or intensity of the emotion. Further that range of intensity or way in which emotion is managed or expressed is what is associated with helpful or unhelpful additional emotions and behavior and outcomes. Thus it is how the emotion is managed or expressed that contributes to our wellbeing and outcome, not simply the emotion itself…
This is important to realize because I believe and would argue that extreme levels of anger in the 7-10 range are rarely or never healthy because they are characterized by the emotion controlling our actions and expressing the emotion or anger in ways that we regret (e.g. insulting someone or acts of extreme aggression).
On the other range of emotion (in the 1 – 3 passive range), people may deny or repress their emotion or anger, which is not healthy either. A person may appear to be calm in this state, but may actually be bottling up their emotion or avoiding dealing with an emotion. This is the risk of self-help authors or psychologists or spiritual leaders telling someone to just be positive, think positive thoughts, and do something to make you happy. Many people would characterize this as being passive, in denial, or repression if you are ‘being positive’ at the cost of avoiding dealing with the actual negative emotion. This may have short term benefit of avoiding the experience of feeling or expressing a painful emotion, or confronting someone who we are angry at. However, denying or repressing an emotion or being passive with our emotions has a long term negative consequence of future outbursts, resentment towards others and self, and risks future boundary violations or injustices occurring because they were never addressed in the first place. It is also potentially inauthentic and dishonest to deny our painful emotions because we are not being true to how we are actually feeling about our self or with others. Simply being positive and not dealing with our painful emotions is especially unhelpful advice when someone is grieving the death of a loved one, job loss, or relationship break up or is understandably angry at an abuser or any sort of unhealthy boundary violation.
On the other end of the emotional intensity spectrum (7-10 aggressive range), some self-help gurus, spiritual leaders, and psychologists will tell you to always express your emotions and feelings no matter what. This has the risk of leading to uncontrolled expressions of emotion and behavior, aggressive acts, our emotions (e.g., anger) controlling us, and consequent feelings of guilt and regret about our uncontrolled expression of behavior, things we say to other people, or acts we may commit when we uncontrollably let lose with emotion.
Alternatively, if we can identify our authentic emotions and then identify the intensity of the emotion, then we can manage and express it in a healthy or assertive manner (4-6 assertive range). For example, simply identifying that you are angry (or sad or anxious) can actually help you decrease the intensity of that anger and put you in more control of your emotions. Further, identifying the intensity of that emotion can help you know if you are at risk of managing your emotion in a passive or aggressive manner and then prompt you to manage it in an assertive manner.
Managing and expressing painful emotions is often more complex than simply avoiding negative emotions or always expressing the full depths of our emotions. A healthy and assertive way to manage and express negative emotions is to recognize that extreme levels of emotion on both ends of the emotional intensity spectrum, either aggression or passive management of emotion are almost always unhealthy and put you at risk of problematic behaviors. The solution is the ‘middle way’ or the identification of the intensity of emotion and healthy assertive expression of the emotion. For example, there is nothing wrong with feelings of anger or fear, in and of themself, if that anger or fear is expressed in a healthy, controlled and assertive manner.
The following steps are helpful ways to manage the INTENSITY of your emotions and express them in an assertive manner. They will not eliminate the negative emotion like some authors would advise you to do; nor will they have you expressing the full depths of your emotion without any regard to the negative consequences of uncontrolled expressions of emotion. Rather these steps will help you regulate the intensity of the emotion to a healthy manner so that you are more in control of your emotions, and are more likely to authentically and consciously choose how to manage painful emotions.
1. Identify the emotion
2. Identify the intensity of the emotion on a scale ranging from 1 – 10
3. Ask yourself: Why am I feeling this way?
4. Focus on your breath
5. State your emotion in a calm and direct manner to someone who will listen to you in an empathetic, caring, and safe way. For example, simply state out loud: “I am feeling angry right now.”
If you do not feel safe stating that to someone then you can write this down in a journal.
This will help decrease the intensity of your emotion so that you can act in a more controlled, authentic, and assertive manner. It will also help you express your painful emotions in a more authentic and safe manner so that they do not stay bottled up nor do they get aggressively unleashed.
This process of managing painful emotions is echoed in Rumi’s poem The Guest House, which is copied below:
This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they are a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.
The dark thought, the shame, the malice.
meet them at the door laughing and invite them in.
Be grateful for whatever comes.
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.
Dr. Matthew Welsh, J.D., Ph.D.
Founder of Spiritual Media Blog