These are negative emotions. All human beings are familiar with these creatures, but as someone who is grieving, I’ll bet you’ve recently come into contact with a particularly intense breed.Even though your negative emotions may look and sound a little different, they all share the singular desire to take up as much as space in your life as you will allow. They feed on attention and they are relentless in their efforts to get it from you. They create a lot of noise in your life, overshadowing other emotions, and convincing you that it’s very important for you to pay attention to them OR ELSE. Sometimes people are especially susceptible to negative emotions, for example when experiences like grief, trauma, and psychological disorder are present. These experiences contribute to the narrowing of a person’s focus and can cause them to be more open to negative emotions, thoughts, and experiences than positive. Pretty soon, they may find themselves shutting positive emotion out altogether, like the bouncer at a very sad and unpleasant nightclub.
When negative emotions are given too much space and attention they can wreak havoc on your thinking; confirming negative beliefs, clouding your worldview, and negatively biasing your opinion of yourself and others. Negative emotions grow and multiply until one day you find there isn’t room for anything else. This is usually right about the time you decide there’s no reason to get out of bed and put on pants in the morning.
Before going any further I want to ask you to identify the emotions are you experiencing right now. You don’t have to pick just one emotion, actually, I would prefer for you to consider the range of emotions you’re experiencing in this moment. If you’re sitting at your desk with a writing utensil and a piece of scrap paper handy, write these emotions down. Now I want you to ask yourself – do I view these emotions as all positive, all negative, or a mix of both?
My hope is that you will say a mix of both, which may seem odd considering “all positive” was an option. But I actually don’t believe that “all positive” is a lofty aspiration, especially considering most people reading this have experienced the death of a loved one. Emotions that are typically considered “negative”, like pain, longing, yearning, and sadness are inherent in loving someone who has died. One must learn to tolerate these emotions in order to maintain a connection the deceased. Some may even go so far as to say they value these emotions because they serve as a reminder that their loved one is irreplaceable and their absence will never cease to be heartbreaking.
As counterintuitive as it may seem to some, the problem is not the existence of negative emotion, rather it’s with keeping negative emotions in check. Problems exist when a person allows negative emotions to take up so much space that positive emotions, thoughts, and experiences no longer have room to survive. You need to reserve some space, even if it is a very little corner of your mind, where positive experiences can exist.
For example, the other day I took a minute to identify the emotions I was experiencing, just as I asked you to do above. I realized I felt stressed out and anxious and typically my response to stress and anxiety is to feel paralyzed (i.e. the stay in bed, no pants scenario). I was wondering why I didn’t feel worse in that moment when I realized it’s because I also simultaneously felt hopeful. Hope was the key because it balanced the emotional scales and gave me a reason to keep trying.
In creating space for positive emotion, one shouldn’t strive to eliminate negative emotion. Rather the goal should be two fold in that a person should attempt to (1) effectively cope with negative emotion so it doesn’t take over and (2) give positive emotion, memory, and experiences some time and attention. Here are a few suggestions:
1. Learn to tolerate negative emotion: Experiences like sadness, guilt, anger, and anxiety will always exist, especially after the death of a loved one. Many people will instinctually try to run away from or escape these distressing experiences, but avoidance usually only makes things worse. These emotions will always be there cropping up when you least expect it. If you try and eliminate negative emotion you will quickly find yourself so consumed with the job of playing emotional whack-a-mole that you cut yourself off from everything else. For more on avoidance in grief, head here.
2. Indulge negative emotion a little bit less: Just because negative emotion wants all your time and attention, doesn’t mean you have to give it to them. Negative emotions are kind of like naughty children, if you allow them to be in control and indulge their every demand, they will run amok. Negative emotions need boundaries and they need to be told no once in a while.
3. Do things to enhance well-being and positive emotion: In a recent post, A Balanced Approach to Coping With Life After Loss, we discuss our approach to coping which asserts that while it’s important to find ways to cope with the thoughts, experiences, and emotions directly related to your loss, it’s also equally important to engage in coping that promotes adjustment and overall well-being. Our rationale is that the better you feel, the more strength you’ll have for dealing with grief. Check out a more thorough discussion on well-being at the link above.
4. Make room for positive memories and a continued bond with your loved one: People sometimes shy away from nurturing a continued bond with their deceased loved one because they fear negative emotion or because society makes them feel as though they ought to leave their loved one in the past. Although memories of your loved one may always be tinged with sadness, in time positive memories and an ongoing bond with your loved one can be an important source of hope, inspiration, strength, and positive emotion.
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