There was no class in school that taught me how to cope with negative feelings such as frustration, sadness, guilt, shame, or loneliness. Emotional control is something we’re all told we should learn, but rarely does anyone talk about how to gain that control.
One of the reasons we have a hard time letting go of negative emotions is because it’s easy to get stuck in the same thought patterns, which perpetuate those emotions. Our brains are hardwired to find grooves, not to look for alternatives. But you can still train yourself to not fall into the same ditch over and over again.
I can have a quick temper. I’ve heard many stories from my family about when I was a kid my temper would flair over not going to McDonald’s, having my hotdog cut wrong, etc. I’ve let those things go (luckily), although I get mad when someone cuts me off in traffic. I get mad when the Denver Broncos lose. I get mad when it starts raining while I’m out riding my motorcycle.
I have no control over what happens; I can’t control anyone else’s actions. I certainly can’t control nature. The only thing I can control is my reaction.
Knowing this, what kind of emotional reaction would be helpful?
Not at all. It produces a strong stress response while potentially putting those around me on-edge. It doesn’t feel great internally, either.
Reframation: SHifting Perspective
Let’s go back to a common example. Let’s say you get cut off in traffic.
Your immediate response is to think, “What an inconsiderate a******.”
Your reframing response is to think, maybe the other driver is rushing to the hospital. Maybe they’re having a terrible day. Who knows? But why default to judging the person negatively?
Reframing helps us curb that knee-jerk “life’s not fair” response, and from feeling like we need to retaliate.
Reframing works on yourself, too.
For example, you know you shouldn’t be eating junk food. You’re taking part in a fat loss challenge and measurement checks are coming up soon. Your anxiety starts to ramp up, and you start berating yourself.
“I’m so fat and inconsistent. I can’t believe I’ve eaten another bag of chips again. I’m so irresponsible. Why can’t I just do the things I know I need to?”
How can you reframe the situation? Criticizing yourself doesn’t help the situation. Your anxiety is already high. (And negative emotions aren’t very inspiring to create positive action.)
Instead, look for situations in which you committed and consistent. For example: “I show up to work on time, and I often stay late. I rarely miss my workouts. I do a lot for my partner/family. I take my dog out, even when it’s raining or snowing. I always call my friends on their birthdays.”
Reframing in this situation doesn’t mean you’re denying the truth. It just means you’re not slapping a label on yourself. You can admit that you have acted irresponsibly in this case, but you’re not irresponsible. You can prove that to yourself.
There is a difference between saying (and thinking), “I am irresponsible,” and “I have acted irresponsibly.”
Which one do you think predicts your future actions? Which would make it harder to break your junk food habit.
If you want to act differently in the future, don’t slap a negative identity on yourself.
Putting it all together
Here’s the 4-step process I use for how you can put this into action:
- Think of a situation where you had a strong (negative) emotional reaction to. (e.g., sitting in rush hour traffic.)
- What were the emotions you felt? (e.g., anger, impatience, irritatation)
- What were your thoughts or beliefs in the situation?
- What caused you to feel those emotions? (e.g., It’s not fair I have to sit here; I just want to get home; Everyone else is a terrible driver; People are clogging up the road)
- What evidence is there that disproves those beliefs?
- How can you reframe the situation? (e.g., Everyone else wants to get home too; They’re not all terrible drivers, there are just a lot of cars on the road; I can use the time to catch up on a book/podcast I want to listen to, or call a friend; Getting angry doesn’t help the situation and only makes me feel worse; etc.)
Reframing doesn’t just work for anger; it works for sadness, disappointment, frustration, guilt, shame, loneliness… any strong negative emotion we feel.
This isn’t “looking for the silver lining.” This is looking at situations from all angles. Our brains are so good at seeking out the negative, it takes practice to look at things positively or neutrally in order to see the full picture, or to accept that maybe the true story isn’t the conclusion we jumped to in the first place.
It’s not about being relentlessly positive; it’s being fair and balanced.
In the process of becoming a more neutral observer, strong negative emotions become softened, which means we’ll feel less sad, less angry, less guilty, etc.
Simply put: we’ll feel better. And isn’t that what we all desire after all?