Escape the Reactive Potential of Strong Negative Emotion
Approximate Read Time: 6 minutes
Think of the last time you were extremely angry. Try to put yourself back into the experience of truly hot anger. Feel your face flush. Feel your blood pressure rise as your patience and empathy fall away. Feel the tension in your face and your body.
Are you able to re-awaken that past anger? Can you bring it back to life, into feeling and experience? Or are you simply remembering the time when you felt angry? If you can feel it, does it have the same intensity that it did when it first arose?
I bet that, like me and nearly everyone else, you are incapable of re-experiencing past angry emotions. Even when you can bring them back into existence they have a mere fraction of their original intensity. What does this demonstrate about our emotions?
This phenomenon and exercise give us insight into the nature of our emotions and provide tools to become masters of our emotional states.
From my personal exploration, I can share two truths: all emotions are fleeting and negative emotions cannot survive observation.
All Emotions Are Fleeting
We know this to be true to the extent that we have hardened it into a cliche: time heals all things. It is impossible to hang onto any feeling, positive or negative, indefinitely. Yesterday’s elation has faded today. Last week’s rage seems a distant memory.
Our inability to maintain even something as all-encompassing as extreme anger proves this fact. We cannot even remember the circumstance that led to most anger, less still can we feel the actual past emotion.
Even when we immaturely hold onto pain and anger, trapped in a negative spiral or a victim mentality, the intensity inevitably fades with time.
Negative Emotions Cannot Survive Observation
While the reassurance that “this too shall pass” helps us persist through many different flavors of pain, disappointment, and heartbreak it fails to capture our true power in these situations. Always maintain the perspective that whatever you feel, no matter how strong or painful it might be, cannot survive for very long. However, recognize that you have a superpower to defeat it now, in this moment. You do not have to outsource the process the inevitable march of time.
Emotions have a strange relationship with awareness. Negative emotions find their power in the shadows of our conscious awareness. They thrive in these spaces where our attentive powers have not yet found them.
Our conscious attention is a spotlight. As soon as we shine our light on anger it immediately begins to dissipate if not die altogether. Negative emotions cannot survive observation.
Much like our attempt to re-awaken past anger, we can kill any present anger simply by looking for it. The next time you feel angry (or sad, or anxious, or stressed) take a step back and look for the emotion. Focus on where and how you feel it - the clenched fists, the flushed face and neck, the pounding heart, and the tension through out your whole system.
All soon as you look for these physical manifestations of your emotion, the emotion itself begins to fade and cannot survive. In my experience, it often fades completely in a matter of seconds.
This process demonstrates a truth about emotions. While we may feel that something external caused them, emotions live entirely within us. They cannot escape, make themselves known, or find any power in the real world without expressing themselves through our action. We have a choice in this. Emotions only live to the degree that we give them breath.
Why Master This Process
We will never develop complete mastery of this process. We will never be entirely free from emotions’ reactive potential. However, we can be infinitely better than we are today.
But, does this really all matter? Sure, I might get a little angry sometimes but it always passes and life goes on.
We all know the reactive potential that strong emotions hold. Most apologies consist of an admission that we acted contrary to our true values while in the throws of strong emotion.
Your actions and words can make a tremendous impact on your life and the lives of those around you. The wrong word might discourage or eliminate an opportunity that might have otherwise entered your life. A hurtful comment might have longterm effects on a loved one, acquaintance, or simply a single-encounter stranger.
Acting under the influence of strong negative emotion is the psychological equivalent of driving drunk. We might feel the reverberations of single bad decision or inopportune action for years to come. Not to mention the damage we might cause to the people around us.
From a practical perspective, learning to master your emotional response serves you and your life. You will not feel captive to swirls of anger and resentment as they arise. You will more adeptly navigate relationships and opportunities. Simply put, you will be more fulfilled and successful on your daily path.
However, this project has an even more important and altruistic purpose. We all have the potential to hurt and offend. This is not a testament to some underlying evil nature. It is simply an admission to instances when we acted rash, immature, or emotional. You did not consciously aim to hurt, yet hurt you did. We are naive to think we will never hurt in this way again. Good intentions are not enough to ensure that you never make a negative impact on those around you.
Mastery of your own emotional response, then, is a charitable act - perhaps the most potent form of charity that you can do. Donations, kind words, and helpful acts have profoundly beautiful effects on their recipients. However, before looking how you can build others up, do the work the tame your capacity to tear them down.
You need not give strong negative emotions power in your life. You need not give them life so that they might raid the lives of others. Shine your spotlight of conscious awareness on them and watch them wither as they are forced to take center stage.
Conquering Strong Negative Emotion
You will never eliminate strong negative emotions nor will you ever completely eliminate your capacity to act poorly while in their grasp. We can only work to continually improve. These are the steps that I take (or at least try my best to take) when in the throws of anger, disappointment, disgust, or offense.
When I feel the inevitable physical response to these emotions, I do my best to pause, hold my tongue, wipe the sour look off my face, and take a deep breath. Admittedly, this is the hardest step. Fortunately, we can alter our seemingly innate traits by thinking of them as habits. We can practice allowing the trigger of strong negative emotions cue a pause rather than an outburst. This becomes easier with repetition and the allowance that we will never be perfect.
Next, search for the physical seat of your anger, sadness, etc. All emotions have physical symptoms and strong negative emotions have particularly distinct ones. Try to find the emotion within your physical sensations. Is your anger in your clenched jaw and flushed face? Maybe it is in your pounding heart? Is your sadness in your slumped shoulders and furrowed brow? Maybe your anxiety resides in that fluttering feeling in your fingers and toes? No matter which emotion you feel and the unique way that you express it, you can find physical manifestations of it. Search for them.
By simply finding where our emotions live within us, we understand that they are little more than physical sensations that can pass just as easily as they arise. They would rather act from the shadows like a master puppeteer. As soon as we pull back the curtain they flee from the stage.
This process is essential to self-mastery. It is an aspect of a recipe that leads to a meaningful life.
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We outline the science behind habit formation and how the interplay between your higher, thinking side and base-level emotional side dictates all action. We conclude the guide with a 3-week training plan to help you craft a unique recipe. This is not dogmatic value structure or a set prescription. We offer a guide based in broad principles and an outline training plan that you can complete based on your lifestyle, needs, and values.
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