A Time for Every Feeling

Posted by Editor Kristi Heidel

The following is an excerpt from Brené Brown, Ph.D., http://www.brenebrown.com.

THE UPSIDE OF NEGATIVE EMOTIONS

The most psychologically healthy people might inherently grasp the importance of letting some things roll off their backs, yet that doesn’t mean that they deny their own feelings or routinely sweep problems under the rug. Rather, they have an innate understanding that emotions serve as feedback—an internal radar system providing information about what’s happening (and about to happen) in our social world.

Happy, flourishing people don’t hide from negative emotions. They acknowledge that life is full of disappointments and confront them head on, often using feelings of anger effectively to stick up for themselves or those of guilt as motivation to change their own behavior. This nimble mental shifting between pleasure and pain, the ability to modify behavior to match a situation’s demands, is known as psychological flexibility.

For example, instead of letting quietly simmering jealousy over your girlfriend’s new buddy erode your satisfaction with your relationship, accept your feelings as a signal, which allows you to employ other strategies of reacting that are likely to offer greater dividends. These include compassion (recognizing that your girlfriend has unmet needs to be validated) and mindful listening (being curious about what interests her).

The ability to shift mental states as circumstances demand turns out to be a fundamental aspect of well-being. Columbia University psychologist George Bonanno found, for instance, that in the aftermath of 9/11, the most flexible people living in New York City during the attacks—those who were angry at times but could also conceal their emotions when necessary—bounced back more quickly and enjoyed greater psychological and physical health than their less adaptable counterparts.

Opportunities for flexible responding are everywhere: A newlywed who has just learned that she is infertile may hide her sense of hopelessness from her mother but come clean to her best friend; people who have experienced a trauma might express their anger around others who share similar sentiments but conceal it from friends who abide by an attitude of forgiveness. The ability to tolerate the discomfort that comes from switching mind-sets depending on whom we’re with and what we’re doing allows us to get optimal results in every situation.

Similar to training for a triathlon, learning the skill of emotional discomfort is a task best taken on in increasing increments. For example, instead of immediately distracting yourself with an episode of The Walking Dead or pouring yourself a whiskey the next time you have a heated disagreement with your teenage son, try simply tolerating the emotion for a few minutes. Over time, your ability to withstand day-to-day negative emotions will expand.

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