How to Deal With Negative Emotions?

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Most people try to fix negative emotions like anxiety, anger or sadness. Instead of solving our problems, however, this approach inevitably leaves us frustrated and confused. It doesn’t work because feelings are uncontrollable.

But we can control what we do. This simple fact is the basis of a way of life called Constructive Living. By helping us focus on what we can control (our behavior) rather than what we can’t (our feelings, other people, the past), Constructive Living makes life more satisfying and meaningful.

Roots of constructive living

Constructive Living is based on two schools of Japanese psychotherapy…

• Morita therapy

Morita therapy represents the action side of Constructive Living. Developed in the early 1900s by psychiatrist Morita Shoma, it has its roots in Zen Buddhism.

• Naikan therapy

Naikan therapy is the reflective side. It was developed in the 1930s by Yoshimoto Ishin, a businessman-turned-priest.

Despite its origins, Constructive Living is not a therapy. It’s a way of living learned through daily practice and observation.

The importance of action

Like the weather, feelings are unpredictable. Sadness and anger come and go. So do joy and excitement. The most sensible approach to handling such feelings is to accept them and continue doing what you need to do.

Example: If you’re nervous about starting a new job, do not fixate on your anxiety or try to eliminate it. Let it encourage you to learn as much as possible about your duties beforehand. Your performance will be enhanced and you will probably find yourself feeling less anxious.

Bottom line: Trying to change the way you feel makes no more sense than trying to will a storm to stop. Just wait.

While you wait, take action toward your goals. Doing so prevents you from dwelling on things you cannot control and brings a sense of accomplishment which should lead to greater happiness and satisfaction. Even if it doesn’t, focusing on your purpose and behavior rather than your feelings will give you a sense of calm and contentment.

The problem with western psychotherapy

Conventional psychotherapists have things backward. They try to help their clients feel better so that they can take steps to improve their lives.

You don’t have to feel good about yourself to make changes in your life. In fact, things usually work the other way we feel better as a result of having made constructive changes.

Feelings that are labeled “negative” in psychotherapy often have very useful roles. ‘

Example: Fear helps us avoid physical danger anxiety prompts us to organize our thoughts before making a speech.

Acknowledging these feelings doesn’t mean you must submit to them. You can feel shy and still invite someone out to lunch. You can fear flying and do it anyway. You can feel sad about the end of a relationship and still go to work.

Morita exercises

Exercise I: Next time you find yourself brooding about someone who treated you badly, do something useful and vigorous. Wash your car, for instance, or vacuum the house. By the time you’re done, the troubling thoughts will probably have passed and you’ll have accomplished something.

Exercise II: List all the chores you have to do, then tackle them in alphabetical order. The point is to do not agonize about what to do.

Exercise III: Over the next 24 hours, try several activities that you haven’t tried before knitting, cooking a new recipe, painting, etc. This teaches you not to let fear or other feelings keep you from trying something new.

The role of reflection

Balancing the Morita side of Constructive Living is Naikan, the reflective side.

Naikan teaches us to revere all the gifts we have been given. It shifts our focus from ourselves to other people.

When we fail to get what we want, it’s easy to feel unhappy. We feel that we haven’t gotten our fair share. But nothing we have is exclusively ours.

Our bodies are a gift from our parents, who got their bodies from their parents. We are sustained by food grown and processed by people we’ve never met. Even our ideas are based upon the wisdom of others.

Conventional therapy encourages people to review the bad things that happened to them in the past all the ways others hurt or disappointed them.

How much time do you spend thinking about the ways you hurt other people? Even if your parents were neglectful, you owe them a debt for giving you life. The fact that you reached adulthood means that someone in your past took care of you.

The proper response to recognizing all that we have been given is gratitude. Rather than focusing on how much the world owes us, focus on how much we have received from so many sources.

Naikan exercises

Exercise I: At the end of the day, spend 20 minutes recalling what people did for you that day, what you did for others and any trouble you caused others. Don’t devote time to reviewing troubles others caused you. Most of us are already skilled at that.

Exercise II: Once a week, find something broken and fix it. Examples: A leaky faucet, a jammed copier, etc. This is a way of expressing gratitude to the things that support you every day.

Exercise III: Think of someone you haven’t been getting along with a coworker, for example. Say “thank you” to that person 10 times a day.

Exercise IV: Every day, secretly perform a favor for a family member. If anyone detects your “secret service,” find another secret service to do.

Example: Shine your spouse’s shoes and return them to the closet.

We tend to do things for others with the idea that we’ll get something in return. This exercise reminds us that the world doesn’t owe us anything.


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