How to Stop the Negative Cycle of Unwanted Emotions

By UB therapist Alyssa Yeo, LCPC, CYT

“Part of every misery is misery’s shadow…the fact that you don’t merely suffer but have to keep on thinking about the fact that you suffer.” – C.S. Lewis

Do you ever find yourself feeling anxious that you’re anxious? Or have you ever felt upset that you’re upset without knowing why?

This is a common cycle to get caught in whenever you’re experiencing an emotion that you don’t really want to be feeling. And the cycle is extremely frustrating – it can feel like a dark hole that you don’t know how to climb out of.  In an attempt to climb out of the hole – our own misery – we tell ourselves to “pull it together” or to “stop feeling that way.” More often than not you’re beating yourself up or judging the emotions you’re feeling.  It’s a valiant effort on your part to change your mood, but there’s just one problem… it doesn’t work

In focusing on not wanting to feel a certain way, you may actually be making it worse. To prove my point, try this: Pause and think about anything but the color red for the next 10 seconds.

Did it work? Or did you find yourself only thinking about the color red?

The more we try not to do something, the harder it is to ignore. It’s the same with our emotions. When we tell ourselves not to feel sad, we feel sadder. Or when we say, “don’t feel anxious” it can make you feel more anxious. We can’t flip our emotions on and off like a light switch, but if we expect ourselves to then we start to feel more out of control.  This continues the cycle of negative emotions, self-judgment and criticism.

Instead of trying to change your mood or emotions, work on accepting them. 

Acknowledge whatever feeling is coming up, and welcome it like any other emotion. Even in those times when you can’t trace your emotion back to a certain event or situation, the feeling is still valid. We don’t always have to have a reason for why we feel a specific way – sometimes we need to chalk it up to being human and knowing that we all have a full range of emotional experiences. It’s natural to go through different moods and ups and downs. Rather than trying to eliminate that entirely, think about how you can embrace it.

One of the best ways to embrace your moods is with self-compassion. Tune into your internal dialogue and be mindful of the way you’re talking to yourself. If you notice that inner critic coming out, pause and think about alternative ways to respond. One good rule of thumb is to talk to yourself as if you were a friend.  Would you tell your upset friend to “suck it up and stop being such a baby” or would you comfort them by responding “it’s okay that you’re feeling that way, everything is going to be okay”?

Acceptance of emotions can feel unnatural at first, but it will get easier. When unwanted emotions arise, practice shifting your internal dialogue to something more compassionate and accepting. This will allow you to sit with the feeling and give it space without giving it power.  In turn, you will feel more in control of your emotional state and more equipped to cope with difficult feelings that inevitably come up.

For resources on self-compassion, check out Kristin Neff’s work. Here is a great five-minute exercise called the “Self Compassion Break.” Click here for more exercises

On July 30th, our current electronic health system will transition to a new and advanced system to better serve you: Athena. Prior to the transition date, you will be sent a registration link to create a new patient account in Athena. If you have any immediate questions or concerns, please do not hesitate to contact your therapist, or call our office to speak to a staff member.