3 ways to work with your negative feelings
Pluralism is a therapy modality that offers clients more choices in how they tackle their difficulties. In this article, I will provide three ways that you can work with your negative feelings. Feel free to use whatever you find helpful, as these techniques are not mutually exclusive.
Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) argues for the general proposition that our feelings are inextricably connected to our thoughts. If our thoughts are biased in a negative direction, then, according to CBT, our feelings will be what is called negative.
No doubt the connection between feelings and thoughts is complex, but it is not too contentious an idea to propose that our thinking-particularly those automatic thoughts that pop into our heads, does influence our feelings. Feelings are evaluations of our world, and thus thought plays a prominent role in how we construe, on an emotional level a situation.
Given this idea, one way of working with our negative feelings is to amend the cognitive component of the emotion so that the emotion itself changes.
Here are two ways that this can be achieved:
a) Negative feelings that disturb the individual tend to involve what can be called 'extreme thinking'. Such thinking tends to construe events or even feelings in an all-or-nothing, either/or fashion (i.e. an event is either brilliant or terrible, you either achieve a goal or are a complete failure and so on). Since there is no middle ground, your emotional responses tend to be overly strong and it is hard to maintain a degree of equilibrium.
An alternative way to construe events is in terms of percentages or probabilities. For example, instead of saying that a B grade was a failure, you can say that you succeeded by 65%; likewise, instead of saying that you'll never get a better job, say that it seems unlikely at the moment that you'll get a better job (if this is true, then examining the reasons and taking corrective measures seems in order.)
These changes might seem small, but regularly practicing this way of interpreting events should make your reactions to events less 'explosive'.
b) One of the standard questions in CBT treatment is, where is the evidence? (for a negative belief.) This question is asked as it encourages you to think about how well your belief corresponds to the facts of the situation. For example, when we are depressed, we see everything through dark glass, and so we might overlook features of the situation that point to a different, even more modest, interpretation of what has happened. If we can see that there is little evidence for what we thought, or not as much as we had imagined, then the negative feeling tied to these thoughts tends to quieten down.
Related to the above question is what could be called the process of trying to 'falsify' our negative beliefs. When we are in a certain mood, we tend to look for evidence that supports that mood (and such a search can happen unconsciously as well). But an alternative presents itself: ask yourself instead 'What reasons are there for not believing these negative thoughts?' If you can come up with compelling reasons for not believing these thoughts, then the emotions attached to them tend to change too.
A different approach to feelings is that instead of trying to amend the negative thinking related to the negative emotions, this technique is all about validating the feelings. This approach tends to be popular in person-centred therapy (where it is seen not so much as a technique as a way of being) and in dialectical behaviour therapy (DBT).
Before looking at the 'how' it is useful to consider the 'why'. The rationale behind this approach is that validating feelings not only can calm a negative feeling, but it can also provide you with valuable information regarding your interactions with the world. Feelings, according to this model, are like a messenger that shouts until they are heard and their message is valuable to hear.
Regarding the 'how', there are three steps to validating feelings:
a) Label the feeling. The more accurately you can do this, the better (neuroscience suggests that even the act of labelling serves a therapeutic purpose). Labelling the feeling lets you know 'what' you are dealing with.
b) The next step is to accept the feeling. Now acceptance is not about liking the feeling, but rather about admitting its existence AND telling yourself that it is OK to feel it. The reason why acceptance is important is that much of our negative feelings are actually adverse (non-accepting) reactions to primary negative feelings (i.e. feeling bad about feeling bad). Acceptance acts as a neutralising agent to negative emotions that can otherwise become overwhelming.
c) The final step involves understanding the emotion, which in practice means providing a context for why you feel the way that you do. Two ways of doing this is to put them in the form 'my [feeling] makes sense given [provide your reason/s here]' and 'no wonder I feel [whatever the feeling is] because [and provide your reasons here'.
Example: 'My sadness over the breakup makes sense because we were nearly always together' and 'no wonder I feel anxious about that review with my boss as they have been overly critical of me in the past.'
Now validating your feelings does not mean that you have to believe them 100%. What it is about is understanding why they are there and extracting what valuable information you can from them. People who often feel beleaguered by negative feelings tend to invalidate them by ignoring them or dismissing them as 'weird' or total 'overreactions.'
Gestalt therapy has many techniques at its disposal to help clients get more in touch with their feelings and to express them to the point of some kind of catharsis. This approach could be called a more experiential method of dealing with feelings.
The technique that I wish to focus on here is known as projection. Projection, used therapeutically, is a means to express negative feelings that have been disowned. Once they are expressed, then in Gestalt terms, unfinished business from the past has been completed and the person can move on with their life.
So how do you do the projection technique? One method is to sit down with a piece of paper and a pen and choose an object in your immediate environment that 'jumps' out at you. Once you've chosen your object, you then write from the object's perspective i.e. you anthropomorphise the object by pretending that it has a voice and you speak from that voice. Start off by writing down what you as the object feels (e.g. I am a carpet and I feel upset because people keep on standing on me) and then over time, you can put questions to the object and answer from the object's 'perspective.' The key thing is not to overthink and to quickly and repeatedly make stuff up. As peculiar as this exercise may seem, you might indeed be astonished at what you find yourself saying about your life through the 'voice' of the object.
Why is this a useful technique for exploring feelings? Basically, the reason why it can work is that a lot of our feelings we don't wish to own up to, as it feels unsafe to admit them. The projection technique acts as a way of tricking yourself into uttering them as it's not you that's saying them, but an object. However, of course it's your feelings, as you have to lend them to the object in question.
These techniques can have powerful effects used singly or in combination. If you find that your negative feelings need to be worked through more deeply and/or you wish to continue your journey of self-exploration with a supportive other, then get in touch with a therapist that can offer a wide repertoire of techniques.
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About Alexander Fox
I am a counsellor with three private practices across the country (Harley street, London; Dundee; St. Andrews). I am trained to masters level in pluralistic counselling, and I utilise a wide variety of different therapeutic approaches when working with clients. I also have a doctorate in English literature and my literary training informs my work.