Making Friends with Red Flags and Warning Lights

Negative emotions are a pain. Literally. We’ve all experienced them: sorrow, guilt, frustration, anger, discouragement, shame, grief, fear, despair, and the list could go on and on. Because of these bad boys, I used to tell myself I hated emotions. I didn’t see the point of them. I thought I’d be so much happier if I never had any emotions ever again. (Ha! The irony!) But it’s come as an epiphany to realize how important these negative emotions are in order for us to function properly. Knowing about and using tools to effectively release them can be very helpful, but first it is vital to see them as the red flags they are and then heed the messages they send. This is really the key to keep them from coming back, and more importantly, learn, grow, and be happier.

Negative emotions are to the mind and spirit what pain is to the physical body. Pain focuses our attention on a physical problem so we can end or minimize the damage and allow any wounds to adequately heal. Negative emotions are meant to bring our attention to spiritual incongruencies or thinking errors. It is usually more difficult to discern what the underlying problems are, but if we focus, we can learn and change. If we don’t, we will just have to keep experiencing the same negative emotions over and over again, in increasing severity, until we finally get the picture. Without negative emotions, we would never be motivated to change our perceptions or live truer to ourselves. (To read more about how emotions are created by thoughts and motivate us to action, go here.) Now, it is true that negative emotions, if held on to long enough, actually create physical pain and disease, but that is a topic for another day.

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Why do so many people thoughtlessly “live with” and endure the onslaught of negative emotions? Our culture has taught us lies which have led us to minimize the role of emotions. That if we’re strong, we just forget about them and try to rise above them. That they’re “fluffy” or “girl-stuff.” That there’s something fundamentally wrong with us if we experience them often. That all we really need to do is self-medicate in order to mask them or numb them. That our negative feelings define us. That we are doomed to always have these emotions with us. That experiencing some of these emotions damages us forever. Yep, I myself have fallen victim to a few of these lies.

Just for kicks, let’s take these common attitudes to painful emotions and apply them to someone experiencing physical pain, say, a recently-sprained ankle.

  • So your ankle hurts? So what? That’s nothing.
  • Get over it and stop worrying. It’s all in your head.
  • Wait it out; it’ll feel better soon.
  • Just pop a few pills and run that race anyway.
  • You’re not going to let a little pain stop you, are you? Just tough it out.
  • Wow, I admire you so much for all this pain you’re experiencing. You’re so strong.
  • This shows just how much God trusts you and loves you, that you have the opportunity to prove yourself by rising above this.
  • Are you serious? It still hurts? I can’t believe you’re still bothered by this.
  • There must be something really wrong with you. You’re pretty messed up.
  • Oh, you say your ankle is all better now? Well, just keep using these crutches anyway, just in case. In fact, you probably shouldn’t ever try to walk on it again.
  • Now you will always be remembered as The One Who Sprained His/Her Ankle. This experience will define you for life.

The obvious solution would be to put it in a splint and keep weight off it for awhile. You wouldn’t continue to keep the splint on longer than it’s needed, or continue to limp or hobble around on crutches once it’s healed. Of course the above attitudes will seem ridiculous when applied to pain caused by a sprained ankle. But isn’t it almost as ridiculous that we say things like this to one another, and especially to ourselves, when experiencing emotional pain?

The next time you feel an emotional disturbance start to rock your world, especially if it’s a recurring experience, try to step back and look at it objectively, as though you were your own spiritual doctor. Identify the thoughts that preceded that emotion. Go deeper than identifying simply what occurred or what someone else said to you, but pinpoint your attitudes, beliefs, and perceptions surrounding what happened. Also, look for any disconnect between the three aspects of your being (mind, body, spirit). Negative emotions are a common conequence when we’re not aligned. Our spirits constantly seek growth and expansion, our minds want to see the logic in everything and keep us alive, and our bodies seek pleasure and avoid pain, so it’s common for these aspects to be out of alignment!

If you still can’t see the problem, try free-writing about the situation, your thoughts and feelings. Often, the simple act of writing helps the mind to make connections that it wouldn’t otherwise. If you’re still stuck, wait for a period of time and go back to what you’ve written when you’re in a different mood. The problem may jump out at you when you’re a bit removed from it. (Please don’t keep this paper or text after it has served its purpose, or it shows your brain that you want to hold on to that negative emotion.)

Talking to other people could help, but I must add a big WARNING here. Please don’t discuss your negative feelings with the person or people most closely connected with the situation. This has a huge potential to hurt them. Even if you have the best of intentions, they may assume that you’re blaming them or dumping on them. Or the conversation may quickly turn to be all about them, which could detract you from your goal. Instead, talk about it with an impartial third party, such as a counselor or a trusted friend who is not a part of this particular situation. Or even go sit in your car and talk to the steering wheel. No one can hear you, and saying things out loud sorts them out faster than just letting your ruminating thoughts go round and round in your head. More on this tool later.

It’s time to stop hiding from negative emotions or letting them run our lives. Instead, let’s see them as the valuable friendly warning lights that they are and appreciate them for the self-knowledge that they precipitate. While I will never be able to say that I “love” my negative emotions, I’m starting to become grateful for them.

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