“Why is this so hard?” I once asked a business mentor.
He paused and I nervously watched as his brow came down his face and narrowed his eyes into a questioning look. I knew something was coming.
“What if this didn’t have to be hard? What if you’re making this hard in your mind?”
There it was. He gave a gentle challenge I didn’t expect, but one I needed.
The negative emotion I was feeling in the moment was pushing me to give up, plop on the coach, and turn on Netflix. But this action would’ve given me a result I didn’t want.
My business mentor was challenging the thought that caused my emotion. And in doing so, he was trying to change the action I was about to take.
It worked. I changed my thoughts around the challenging circumstance, and in turn changed how I felt. My new emotion was giving me new results—results I was proud of.
This is why it’s important to realize our negative emotions.
If we’re not careful, negative emotions can take the driver’s seat and push us to take actions that aren’t beneficial for us.
The solution is to engage our emotions.
If we can notice our negative emotions when they occur, and change the thought behind them, we can take control of the driver’s seat and make better decisions.
This is difficult in today’s society, but thankfully, I have a simple 4-step process to get you started with this life-changing practice.
Why emotions are hard to notice
We live in a society that trades matters of the heart for greater efficiency. In doing so, we let go our capacity to engage emotions.
Instead of learning healthy ways to deal with negative emotions, we jump to the numbing behaviors that are within reach. We binge-watch Netflix, drink too much, go on a shopping spree—anything to get our minds off the negative emotion.
Numbing emotions like this is costly. First, once we start being selective with what emotions we want to feel, we inadvertently numb out the positive emotions. We cannot experience joy without learning to move through negative emotions. As Dr. Brene Brown says in her book, The Gifts of Imperfection, “When we numb the dark, we numb the light.”
Secondly, studies show that people who numb emotions are less able to repair their negative mood. They experience fewer positive emotions and more negative emotions. Plus, they have less life satisfaction and less self-esteem.
We can’t increase joy if all we do is run from bad emotions and entertain positive ones. We have to sit through the hard stuff to get to the good stuff. That’s what gives us a joy that lasts.
How emotions happen
If you want to reframe your emotions and turn them into something positive, you first need to understand where they come from. This is where most people get it wrong.
Emotions don’t appear out of thin air. Emotions are born from our thoughts. And our thoughts come from how we perceive an event.
Events are neutral, meaning they are neither good nor bad. It’s the meaning we assign to the events that make them good or bad in our minds.
For example, imagine you get assigned extra work at your job. You can either think this is a negative event because now you have to cancel plans. Or you can think this is a positive event because it’s work you love doing.
Events trigger thoughts which cause our emotions which informs our actions which gives us results.
Events → Thoughts → Emotions → Action → Results
Master life coach, Brooke Castillo, calls this the Model. She defines it as Circumstance, Thought, Feeling, Action, Results.
This is also the core of what’s called Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). CBT is the idea that thoughts influence behavior so if you can change the thought, you can change the behavior.
What’s important to recognize with this model is that emotions are what’s driving your actions. If you can properly engage your emotions, get awareness about them and reframe them, then you can steer your life in the direction you want.
But again, if you’re not used to engaging your emotions, this can be difficult.
Fortunately for you, there’s a simple 4-step process I use every morning to gain awareness over my emotions so I can make better decisions and change my results. Here it is.
Step 1: Name the emotion
The first step is to name the emotion. But if you’re someone who has limited awareness of emotions, or your emotions follow black-and-white dichotomies (“I feel good” or “I feel bad”), then there are tools to help you.
The best tool is the Feelings Wheel. The Feeling Wheels helps you trace your emotion back to the core emotions that motivate behavior.
The one I like the best is the Junto Emotion Wheel. In this model, they list six core emotions. The emotions on the outer perimeter can be traced up to these basic feelings. And the shading of the emotions can give you a hint about the mixture of emotions you might be feeling. For instance, feeling “touched” is a mixture between Joy and Surprise.
Each morning, I use this tool to assess what I might be feeling.
Step 2: Identify the story
As mentioned before, emotions come from the thoughts that come from neutral events. When you identify the story, you first recall the event that caused your feeling, and the thought you had in regards to the event.
For instance, an event might be that I wasn’t invited to an event with friends. If my feeling was sadness, I would trace that back to the thought of, “They must not like me.”
Both the event and the thought add up to a story you’re telling yourself. The good news about stories is, once you gain awareness of the story, you can change their meaning.
Step 3: Decide the action
Once you identify the story, you get to decide what action you want to take. This is a powerful step. Most people let their emotions unconsciously rule their behavior. But with this step, you can decide the action you want to take.
For instance, in the above example, I could choose to ask why I wasn’t invited. Or I could choose to search for a new friends’ group where my needs are met. This step places the power of choice in your hands.
Step 4: Choose the belief
Finally, it’s important to choose the new story you want to believe. When you identified the story in step 2, you might’ve noticed that you’ve been telling yourself similar stories for a large part of your life. In this step, you can reframe the negative emotion into something positive that starts to rewire this story by creating an affirmation.
For instance, using the above example, I would write down an affirmation that says, “I am lovable and worthy of belonging even if others don’t want me in their community.” This is an affirmation that positively reframes the thought listed before.
By convincing yourself of these affirmations, you start to change your thought patterns. And as you change your thoughts, you change your emotions.
This is how you properly engage your emotions instead of ignoring them.
It’s not easy
This 4-step process might sound simple, but it’s not an easy solution.
For one, there’s a reason you’re telling yourself a similar story over and over again. If you read events in a certain way that almost always brings about a negative emotion, there’s a reason.
Pure behaviorists would say if you just change the behavior, you can change the thought. But the same negative thoughts don’t appear out of nowhere. They are often the learned response to trauma and shame.
So when I say this method is not easy, I mean that writing down affirmations won’t rewire these negative thoughts if there is deeper work to be had. This is why I believe in the power of counseling. Counseling can help detangle you from the grip of shame.
You can only notice trauma and shame poisoning your thinking when you bring them into the light, and this isn’t easy.
If you are more emotionally literate and are aware of your past trauma and shame, this method will work well for you so you can stay present with your emotions and stop them from ruling your life. But if you are absolutely oblivious, and know something is wrong underneath, consider seeking help.
Emotions are what drive our behaviors. We can either befriend them and use them to reach bigger and better goals, or we can ignore them and have them unconsciously steer us away from what we want. It’s not easy, but the results are always worth it.