Handling Negative Emotions

It’s easy to get caught up in the pattern of thinking too much about what you don’t want. This includes noticing what you already have in your life but don’t like. If you think often about what you don’t want, it’s a safe bet you’ll make a mess of your life.

Thinking about what you don’t want is a trap. Such thoughts can keep you stuck for a very long time. You can seriously blow years — even decades — of your life in the following vicious cycle:

1. Look around and observe what you’re experiencing.

2. Notice that you don’t like certain aspects of your life.

3. Feel fear, worry, sadness, disappointment, and/or other negative emotions.

4. Think about what it would take to change what you dislike.

5. Notice that it will probably take a huge amount of time and effort to change — and with no guarantee of success. Consider that you might even make things worse.
6. Feel frustrated, trapped, and/or depressed.

7. Do something that makes you feel better. Watch TV. Eat. Drink. Surf the web. Check email. Maybe do all of the above.

8. Feel some relief and comfort now that you’ve distracted and/or drugged yourself.

9. Allow some time to pass, and eventually repeat from step one.
Do you ever run this pattern or something similar?

There are many variations on the above, but you’ll probably recognize patterns like this running in your life right now.

When do you run this kind of pattern? With your relationships (or lack thereof)? With your job/career? With your finances? With your living situation? With your physical body?

Here’s a specific example of how you might run this pattern on your finances:

1. Observe something that triggers negative thoughts about your finances. It could be a bank statement, a bill, a blog post about money, the sorry contents of your wallet, or the prices at the gas station. The stimulus could also be internal, perhaps triggered by a random thought about your money situation.

2. Notice that your finances aren’t where you want them to be. You don’t have enough cash, your income is too low, your expenses are too high, or you’re too deep in debt. Maybe it’s all of the above.

3. Worry about your financial situation. Be upset that things aren’t working. Worry that your situation may worsen.

4. Consider what you’d have to do to earn more money, pay off your debt, and/or reduce your expenses.
5. Notice that it will take a lot of hard work and some unpleasant changes to get your finances where you want them to be, and there’s a good chance you’ll fail anyway.
6. Feel frustrated, stressed, and overwhelmed. Conclude that this is too much to deal with right now.

7. Spend a few hours web surfing to comfort yourself. Watch a movie. Eat some food that makes you feel better, even though it may not be the healthiest choice for you.
8. Feel some temporary relief from your troubles. Ahhhh…

9. Go to bed, wake up the next morning, and run the same script again.
We can summarize the general pattern like this:

Think about what you don’t want -> Feel bad -> Comfort yourself

This pattern is very, very common. It’s also highly addictive. But it’s not very intelligent.

The reason this pattern isn’t intelligent is that it never cures the underlying problem. You only treat the symptoms. You address the negative emotions by comforting yourself for a while, but the problem remains. The negative emotions will surely return to haunt you again and again.

Whenever you notice that you’re comforting yourself as a way of dealing with negative emotions and the problems that gave rise to them, recognize that you’re guaranteeing that your problems will continue to bug you.

Once you get stuck in this pattern for a sufficient length of time, it’s hard to quit. You’ll probably just keep running it over and over, perhaps every day for years to come.

Breaking the pattern

So how can we break this destructive chain?

It’s hard (but not impossible) to catch yourself thinking about what you don’t want and then to consciously shift your thoughts to something more positive. Usually this approach fails though. It’s hard to choose positive thoughts while you’re stuck in the pattern of thinking negative thoughts.

It’s even harder to break out of the pattern when you’re already feeling bad. By that point you’ll feel an overwhelming urge to comfort yourself, and you won’t be motivated to do anything else.

It appears that the easiest place to break the pattern is after you’ve comforted yourself. Now you’re feeling temporarily relieved. You’re more relaxed and not as stressed as you were earlier. You’re a bit more conscious too. You may be a bit tired, but you can muster a small amount of motivation to do something different here.

Is this the time to start making changes? No, not yet. If you try to solve your problems with action at this point, you’ll probably just start the pattern over again. You’ll begin to notice how bad your situation is and how much work it will take to fix it, and then you’ll start feeling bad again. That approach keeps you stuck in the loop. It can work in some cases, but it usually requires a ton of self-discipline, and you’re very likely to fail.

A better approach is to take your feelings of relief and extend them into feeling excited. I’ll explain how to do this.

Think about what you want until you’re genuinely excited

Once you’re feeling relieved and comforted, even if you’ve had to drug yourself with food, wine, and mindless entertainment to reach this point, you’re in a reasonably good place to start thinking about what you want instead of what you don’t want.

Don’t worry about action just yet. That will come later. Just start thinking about what you want. Dwell on it. Obsess over it. Imagine how you want things to be. Imagine everything in your life working out beautifully.

Don’t worry about practicality. Just fantasize. But fantasize in a specific way. Sit on your couch (or a chair or park bench if people came and took your couch away), and imagine that what you want is actually becoming real. Put yourself in the frame of mind that it’s already happening.

A realistic way to do this is to set aside 20 minutes every evening before going to bed just to dream. Do this sitting up so you don’t fall asleep. Close your eyes or stare off into space, and think about what you want to experience in each part of your life. Whatever you think about is fine, as long as it feels good to you.

Imagine your ideal physical body. Think about your ideal relationships. Picture your ideal career. Imagine having your finances just the way you want them. Imagine living where and how you want to live. Be specific, and picture as much detail as you can. Don’t worry about getting the details perfect — just imagine details that seem attractive to you.

Make sure these imaginings are fully associated. This means that you imagine seeing each scene through your own eyes. Generally you should avoid using a third-person perspective, although you can try it if you want to imagine things from a different angle. Usually the first-person perspective will create stronger emotions.

You don’t have to say or affirm anything. But it’s crucial that you feel the feelings. If you feel neutral, you’re not there yet. How would you honestly feel if you were experiencing all of these wonderful things right now? If you’d feel totally neutral to have them right now, it’s safe to say you don’t really want them.

Don’t project your dreams into some distant future. Imagine that whatever you want is happening right now this very moment. Imagine that it’s 100% real.

If it takes you 10 or more minutes just to get a clear picture of some small part of your life getting better, then so be it. Put in the time. Deliberately thinking about what you want is a very important activity. This kind of visualization is an outstanding use of your time.

If you think about what you want, and you imagine it as real, but you get very little emotional surge from it, then drop it for a while, and imagine something else. Go bigger. Go bolder. Involve other people. Involve the whole planet if that’s what it takes to stir your emotions. It’s your imagination. You don’t need anyone’s approval to choose the thoughts that feel good to you.

Don’t spend much time thinking about what makes you feel relieved and comfortable. Think about what excites you. Imagine scenes that make you ooze with passion. If you have a hard time getting excited, then keep imagining different things. There’s no time limit.

When you fantasize about having sex, notice how it affects your body. You should have a similar physiological (downright lusty) response when thinking about what you really, truly desire. If your body doesn’t respond, drop the visualization you’re doing, and think about something else. Explore your imagination to figure out what you really want. You may be surprised.

Again, don’t worry about practicality. It doesn’t matter if you can actually have all the good things you’re visualizing. You can fantasize about having superpowers if you want, as long as you can get yourself to imagine yourself there right now in the present moment, feeling the feelings intensely.

The most important part is to get yourself feeling really, really good, and that’s fairly easy to accomplish if you spend some time thinking deeply about what you truly want and imagining it as real.

Bare minimum, do this exercise for 20 minutes at a time every day for a week. That’s seven days, not just five days. If you skip a day, start over from day one.

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