Staying with Negative Emotions is the best way to deal with them


Turning away from negative emotions is unhealthy; positive action is the antidote — is the principle approach Rakesh Shukla uses

What happened the last time you looked pensive, worried, or anything other than smiling and happy?  Chances are your colleagues, friends or your spouse joined the chorus to tell you to “cheer up”. In some cases, they would follow up with the offer of creating a distraction — go to a movie go out drinking, etc. This is a ‘normal’ response, but I pose a different problem before you. How many times have you decided not to make the negative emotions go away but actually decided to stay with it, look at this ball of negativity and sadness, and tease out the individual threads that make it up? 

Positivity has Become the new Moral Correctness

Clearly, as a society, we place a lot of emphasis on being happy, and in case we are not happy — at least looking happy. It seems to be a deep-set belief that getting into a better mood is somehow pervasive and will actually make your problems go away. Maybe that is what you think too — maybe that’s why you are the first one to plan out the weekend. 

I have written earlier about how ‘feeling happy’ creates the Myth of Happiness. That in turn keeps us from being the most productive and takes aways the drive for most motivated actions. In this piece, we discuss how it is important to stay with negative emotions — not indefinitely —  but to understand them and find steps that you can take to get past them. You need to build the emotional discipline to stay with the negative emotions long enough and look at them hard enough till you can identify each one. That’s how paradoxically accepting our negative emotions can actually make us happier in the long run. 

“The true and durable path into and through experience involves being true… to your own solitude, true to your own secret knowledge.”

Seamus Heaney during the acceptance address after winning the Nobel Prize for poetry

From a low mood to Being ‘Happy’

I realised that the following steps worked for me, repeatedly, in the deeply negative situations and mindset I found myself in:

  1. Identify the overall event that is causing this low mood: The first step is to identify what is causing this low mood. Typically this is an impending event — it is an upcoming loan repayment or an upcoming performance review? 
  2. Identify what this low mood is made of: Low moods hide within them fear, sadness, anger, anxiety, frustration, uncertainty, disappointment, confusion, resentment, etc. These are individual distinct emotions with individual histories and triggers. But they are deeply interconnected and often present themselves as one single feeling — being low. Identifying each allows us to address them individually. For example, loan repayment is mostly stress and anxiety; it is not fear, sadness, anger, frustration, uncertainty, disappointment, confusion or resentment. 
  3. Identify where each stems from: I have found that instead of pushing aside negative feelings, once you know where they come from — say stress or anger — you can ask yourself the second level question — what are you stressed about? If loan repayment is stressing you, is it because you don’t have the money or because you fear your paycheck will be late, or because your last check bounced?
  4. Identify what you can do about it: Now you can ask yourself the next set of questions — what am I going to do about it? If the stress is coming from repaying a loan in 20 days, the set of questions is — what options do I have in the short run such as (a) asking for monetary help (b) find a customer who can pay fast enough 
  5. Identify an action to address it: Once this ‘feeling’ of being ‘worried’ is replaced by knowing which emotion, and what trigger it has — it is simpler to identify a set of small steps you can take. For example, if your option includes asking for help — then you will make a list of people you can call and present to them the problem they can help with. This forces you to stop feeling low, to get up and take action. 

In my case, the breakthrough came when I realised that at the centre of my overwhelming feeling of loss and sadness was the feeling of being undermined and humiliated. From a gleaming glass office I had created for myself, I spent years and months being summoned at police stations, criminal courts, by tax authorities and banks. Instead of just feeling sad I started creating a distance between me and the situation. I started saying ‘I’m feeling humiliated because _____,’ or ‘I am frustrated because I want to leave here and go home.’

This did two things — I laid to rest that unease about leaving because I had to accept that I could not leave and go home. And it answered the important question about feeling undermined and humiliated. It would be legitimate for me to have felt humiliated if I had done any of the things I was accused of! Humiliation was not a legitimate feeling — anger was (see also about stages and dealing with grief).

I have earlier spoken about becoming forgiving of one’s own trespasses. Acceptance of my current state also allowed me to be forgiving of myself and allowed me to create a safe space within myself. 

“For the most part, positive action is the antidote to negative feelings.”

Rakesh Shukla

Turning away from negative emotions is unhealthy because it undermines our ability to deal with reality. The constant distraction to feel happy presents a greater disconnect between our reality and how we wish it to be. This, in turn, gives us lower levels of resilience and wellbeing and higher levels of depression and anxiety. 

Action orientation is the best way of letting go ‘feeling’ negative. Negative situations are a part of life — learn to stay with them, become mindful of them and create small actions that will change your life’s outcomes. This is the principle approach that I have used. Remember, to be an effective individual you absolutely must know deep down that even if things don’t go right you will still like and respect yourself.  

Stronger with RAKESH SHUKLA is a framework for developing unparalleled mental and physical toughness. It is based on Rakesh’s life, and has helped drive two ‘comebacks’.

Rakesh Shukla slept on railway platforms on his way to creating a world-leading technology company — 
TWB_, which is the choice of over 40 Fortune 500 tech customers worldwide including Microsoft, Boeing, Airbus, Intel, and others. However, at 43, he lost everything within a year. Alone and friendless, he spent the next five years repaying over INR 20 crore of debt and taxes, while building back his company and reputation, and creating and funding VOSD — world’s largest dog sanctuary and rescue.

Rakesh Shukla has suffered heart disease since he was seven years old, had had two heart attacks by the time he was 30, suffers from brain diseases, has broken his back and his kidneys are failing. Towards the end of this five-year period, Rakesh weighed 88 kg and very unfit. Today, at 48 years, he can lift well over 100 kg above his head, run a 10-minute mile, do 2,000 push-ups, and 250 pull-ups. He has never been to a gym, been on a diet, had a trainer, or taken any supplements.

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