Emotional self-mastery involves our ability to regulate our emotions in a healthy way. All types of emotions can arise, but that doesn’t mean that we need to be carried away by them, or that they need to define what we can or cannot do in the moment.
Regulating our emotions means that we can turn their volume up or down, expand them or shrink them, help them stay around longer, or make them disappear more quickly. This is a trainable skill—and a very important one for living well, relating well, and feeling in control of our lives.
In the first article of this series, I talked about awareness as the foundation for all self-mastery work. Now in this article, I will discuss how we can regulate or manage negative emotions. In Psychology they call this self-regulation; for me, this is an integral part of self-discipline.
Some authors and therapists dislike the term “negative emotions”, arguing that framing it like this can lead to an attitude of repression, numbness, or avoidance in relation to our emotions. I can see how this can be the case for many people, when this term is used without proper context.
At the same time, we cannot deny that certain emotions are more desirable than others. Most people would agree that emotions such as joy, satisfaction, love, confidence, awe, excitement, and gratitude are highly desirable; and that emotions such as shame, guilt, anxiety, fear, jealousy, hatred, and frustration are uncomfortable and undesirable.
Our body would also agree. The so-called positive emotions nourish our nervous system and have a healthy effect on our body, while the so-called negative emotions cause stress to our body, even at a cellular level.
For these reasons, I don’t mind calling these emotions negative, provided that we understand what are the most effective ways to relate to them (see below). In my work, I use the terms negative emotions, difficult emotions, unpleasant emotions, and challenging emotions interchangeably.
Let’s now learn the three main approaches to managing negative emotions. They are not the only ones that work, but they are methods that I have used repeatedly in my own life and also in my work with students and coaching clients. I will use anxiety as an example for explaining some of these techniques, but keep in mind that they apply to any emotion you may be dealing with.
Approach #1: Challenge Your Thinking
The first approach is working at the level of the mind. This is helpful mostly if the emotion you are dealing with was triggered by thoughts, or if its dominating feature is thought.
This involves challenging the negative thoughts associated with the unpleasant emotion. Identify what is the thought pattern that triggered your emotion—be it anger, anxiety, jealousy, frustration, or anything else. Then question that thought pattern by using questions such as the following:
- Can I prove that this is true?
- Is this thought accurate, or could it be an exaggeration?
- What facts might I be overlooking, ignoring, or discounting?
- If I had to argue for the opposite, what would I say?
- Have I ever been wrong about something like this before?
- Have things ever turned out fine before, despite similar anxieties?
- Would everyone I know interpret this the same way?
- Is this thought helpful, or is it holding me back?
This questioning undermines the foundation of the unpleasant emotion, or its main expression. You then shift your self-talk by replacing those thoughts with more accurate, positive, or empowering thoughts. The way you do this varies from case to case.
You might find that going through this process as a journaling exercise will help you ground your thoughts more, and gain greater clarity and perspective.
This is a technique widely used in Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT) and in many self-help books.
Approach #2: Witness Your Mind
The second way of working with negative emotions is actually the polar opposite: instead of dialoguing with thoughts, you take a step back and simply witness them. You remain as the awareness that knows thoughts and emotions. This means recognizing the thoughts and emotions arising in your mind and letting them be as they are—without “touching” them, without believing them, without spinning them.
Witnessing is a core skill developed through meditation and mindfulness practices. It takes less energy than questioning and replacing thoughts, but it won’t change the underlying assumptions. Instead, it works by giving you back some headspace, and with it comes the freedom to make choices according to your values.
Here are the three key features of witnessing:
- Objectivity. Witnessing is taking a step back to gain some space, and looking at the thought from a distance, rather than being inside the thought. You are looking at the thought, not into the thought.
- Non-engagement. You are aware of the thought’s content, but you are not thinking the content. You are not dialoguing with thoughts, nor spinning them into a story. You neither hold on to thoughts nor push them away. You let the thoughts be there without dwelling on them and let them go when they go.
- Independence. You remain centered in yourself. You are aware of the thoughts but you don’t necessarily believe in them. You don’t use them to define who you are, what you can do, or how you should or shouldn’t feel.
When you witness like this, the thoughts and emotions may remain there but they lose the power to limit you. They no longer define your experience.
This approach is used in mindfulness, in several spiritual traditions, and, in modern times, also in Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT).
To explore these two tools of mindset and witnessing in greater depth, check out chapters 9 and 10 of my new book, Wise Confidence.
Approach #3: Release Through Your Body
A completely different approach to managing negative emotions is working with them at the level of the body. This includes making use of skills such as relaxation, bodily awareness, breathing, and acceptance.
If you are dealing with powerful emotions or impulses, mindset work and witnessing are unlikely to work on their own. When you experience not a mild emotion but what can feel like a tsunami of energy uprooting you from your center, try working first with your body rather than your mind.
There is a technique I developed back in my days of helping people with anxiety, through mindfulness skills, and that I have continued to use since then because it’s so effective. It’s called the ROAR Method, short for Recognize, Observe, Accept, Release.
- Recognize the emotion or urge that is here. Label it to yourself, “Anxiety is here” or “Boredom is here”.
- Observe it in your body as pure sensations. See where they are, and what they are like. Stay for some moments in the place where they are the strongest.
- Accept the sensations as they are—without rejecting them, without aversion, without contracting. Just stay with them. Make room for them. Let them be there as if it makes no difference to you.
- Release the sensations with every out-breath. Imagine that you are breathing in and out through those sensations in your body, and that with every exhalation they are dissolving.
Do this process for 2-5 minutes, and it will begin to shift your state. In most cases, you will be ready to move forward with your day. The emotion may still be there in the background but will have lost its grip.
With regular practice, you will be able to go through the ROAR process in just a few seconds, anytime, anywhere. In the meantime, as a support for your practice, you can use the ROAR Method guided meditations available in the Mindful Self-Discipline app.
Approach #4: Refocus
In this final approach, we don’t try to manage the difficult emotion at all, but instead focus on something positive. This could mean changing environment, going out for a walk, talking to someone, or starting an activity that you find pleasant or fulfilling. The more engaging is your new object of focus, the better.
This refocusing can also be exclusively internal. As discussed in the article on Shakti, our mind cannot hold on to two opposite states at the same time. We cannot, at the same time, experience anxiety and also the states that are the antithesis of anxiety—confidence, courage, relaxation, optimism, and acceptance. To the extent that we bring in the qualities that are the opposite of anxiety, anxiety will disappear.
The same is true for any other negative emotion we may be feeling. Find what is the opposite of that state, then kindle that positive emotion by using your memory or imagination. Either bring to mind your past experiences of feeling that emotion or imagine how it would feel—and do so until you re-create that state, here and now. Bring in the light, and the darkness will automatically disappear.
Bringing in the opposite emotion is a centuries-old technique found in Buddhism and in the Yoga tradition. Following this process will “cancel” the negative emotion, just like turning on the light in a dark room “cancels” the darkness. This canceling is very different from suppressing or repressing, which are acts of self-violence.
The so-called negative emotions are not bad—but they are painful and can be limiting. At times, the wise thing to do is to stay with them, feel them, and let them teach you something. This is especially helpful when you are feeling something for the first time.
At other times, you can use one of the approaches covered in this article to manage, dissolve, or transcend that emotional state. This is an exercise in self-regulation, one of the key skills of emotional intelligence, and an integral aspect of training our higher mind.
In the next article of this series, you will learn more about how to do the opposite: cultivate positive emotions. In the meantime, I leave you with a couple of points for self-reflection:
- What negative emotions do you experience most often?
- Which techniques will you use to manage them?