6 Steps to Manage Painful Emotions

Many self-help authors suggest to avoid negative emotions such as anger, anxiety, depression, sadness, and guilt. However, I think their analysis and recommendations are incomplete because they fail to understand the distinction between non-judgmentally accepting a negative emotion and expressing it in a healthy manner versus reacting poorly to the negative emotion. My hope is this article will give you some suggestions for managing painful emotions and expressing them in a healthy manner.

First, it is helpful 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. Rather, anger could be on a continuum of intensity ranging on a scale of 1 – 10. Anger levels 1-3 represents no anger or perhaps repressed, denied or passive anger. During this range of emotion (in the 1 – 3 range), people may be denying or repressing their emotion or anger (or sadness or anxiety), which is not healthy. A person may appear to be calm or happy, but really they are bottling up their emotion or avoiding dealing with an emotion. This is the risk of self-help authors  telling someone to just be happy, think positive thoughts, or avoid negative emotions. Many psychologists actually characterize this response of avoiding the actual emotion as being passive, denial, or repression. Being passive or avoidant may have a short term benefit of avoiding the experience of feeling a painful emotion or avoiding confronting someone who we are angry at. However, it has a long term negative consequence of the negative emotion actually becoming worse because it was not dealt with, future outbursts, resentment towards others and self, as well as risking future boundary violations that were not initially addressed. It is also potentially inauthentic and dishonest when we avoid ‘negative emotions’ because we are not being true to how we are actually feeling about our self or others.

On the other end of the emotional spectrum, anger levels in the 7 – 10 range would be extreme or aggressive anger (or depression or anxiety). Aggressive anger is usually characterized by anger (or the anxiety or sadness) controlling you, leading to acts of aggression such as yelling, intimidation, threats, insults, or violence and consequently feelings of guilt or regret after the uncontrolled expression of anger. At this level the emotion, whether it be anger or sadness or anxiety, is controlling your behavior and functioning, rather than you staying in control of your reaction to the emotion.

Thus, anger, and all emotions (grief, anxiety, sadness, depression) vary in their range or intensity of the emotion. Our response to that intensity of emotion can affect whether we handle the emotion in a healthy or unhealthy manner. If we can learn to identify our emotion and then identify the intensity of the emotion, then it becomes easier to manage and express it in a healthy or assertive manner (4-6 range) or prevent it from becoming worse.  For example, simply identifying that you are angry can actually help you decrease the intensity of that anger (or anxiety, sadness) and be in more control of how we respond or express the emotion .

The following steps are helpful ways to manage negative emotions emotions. They will not eliminate the negative emotion, rather they will help regulate the intensity of the emotion to a healthy level so that you are more in control of your emotions, response, and be able to act more authentically…

1. Identify the emotion
(Some authors actually say if you name the emotion, then you will “tame” 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 and what do I need to feel a little better?

4. Focus on your breath and take some deep and slow breaths.

Ideally it is best to breathe for a count of 4 through your nostrils. Hold for a count of 2. And, then release for a count of 6. Changing your breathing in this manner will slow down the “fight-or-flight” response, activate the parasympathetic nervous system, and make easier for you to make a logical or rational decision on how you would like to respond to the emotion.

5. Accept your emotional response without any judgment towards yourself.

6. Consciously decide how you would like to respond to your emotion.

There is a poem by Rumi called The Guest House that gives a very profound and practical application of this process of non-judgmentally accepting our emotions in a healthy manner when he writes:

The Guest House

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.

— Jellaludin Rumi,