What happens when we are really upset about something? Our minds become a swirling tempest and it’s hard to focus on what we are intending to do. We might also get into trouble — saying things that shouldn’t come out of our mouths or taking rash actions that could crash our careers. Because being able to handle our negative emotions is so important, Jean Ramsey and I devoted most of Chapter 3 to it in Reframing Change.
In an earlier post, I explained that resistance to change is one form of a negative emotion that inhibits our chances of achieving our goals. As a solution, I suggested trying the three step process for emotional clearing: feel the negative emotion of resistance, intensify it, and release it.
In reply, Aleksandra wrote, “Jean, I love your article. I find very interesting that desire can subside if you intensify it. I’m looking forward to experimenting with it.”
This is such an important topic, I decided to devote this blog entry to it. Can we really clear our negative emotions by deliberately feeling and intensifying them? If so, how? One tool is what I call the Mad-Sad-Scared-Glad Technique.
The Mad-Sad-Scared-Glad Technique
I used this tool last week when I woke up at 3 a.m. with vague feelings of worry and dread. For me, the technique is an excavation in which I ferret out, label, and do all I can do to fully experience each and every negative emotion that I uncover. During the day, I may work from a feelings chart, but by night, I stick with the basic four of mad, sad, scared, and glad. Sometimes it works if I lie in bed and do it all in my head. This time, though, I was too upset to stay focused, so I got up and went and sat on the couch. After propping myself up with a bunch of pillows, I put my netbook on my lap, and started typing away. Here’s a sample of what it looks like:
Do I feel sad? Oh, yes, I do, let me really amplify that feeling. This is heartbreaking. Do I feel mad? Yes, indeed. How dare she have done such a thing! I’m really angry about it. Do I feel scared? No, not really, but wait, yes, there is a hint of fear here. Let’s see. Let me go into it more closely. Oh my goodness, I am actually terrified.
How about glad? There is nothing to be glad about here. Actually, I am really glad she got her comeuppance. Oh, that’s awful. How can I be glad about all that interpersonal conflict and someone else’s misery? But I’m not going to shut down that feeling. I will just smirk away at the very thought of her misery — poetic justice to her! Now I feel remorse. How could I wish harm on someone like that? Okay, I’ll sink into the glee that she got her comeuppance and then I’ll sink into the remorse that I am glad about it.
Now, suddenly, I feel sad for her — very sad. And she doesn’t have a clue as to what she can do about it. It’s awful to feel so powerless. I can really feel that.
After ferreting out different emotions, I started listing general fears, then general desires, and then suddenly, I typed, “I will be alright.” I woke up a couple of hours later with the netbook still on my lap. The negative emotions had been released.
Note that in the Mad-Sad-Scared-Glad process, the “story” of what had happened to me wasn’t important. I didn’t dwell on it or attempt to explain or even to write it. Rather, the target was the underlying emotions that the story generated.
Why does this work?
Turns out that there is an ever-growing body of neuroscientific research on what is called “emotional self-regulation,” the ability to regulate our own emotions. Key parts of the brain are the amygdala which is involved in processing our emotions and the prefrontal cortex which serves a governance function — planning, decision-making, and issuing commands. When we are upset, the amygdala and related systems are activated. Their activation means that our prefrontal cortex has to work harder to gain our attention — in short, our emotions are on fire and it’s hard to focus and concentrate.
The goal of clearing our emotions, then, is to deactivate the amygdala and free up the prefrontal cortex so that it can do its governance job better.
Researchers have found two things about emotional self-regulation that are related to the Mad-Sad-Scared-Glad technique:
- Simply labeling and monitoring one’s negative emotions reduces activation of the amygdala and increases activation of the prefrontal cortex. As I named what I was feeling, I was also monitoring how my body responded to each label. This decreased the intensity of my negative emotions and increased my ability to actually think.
- Expecting that I could actually impact my emotions predisposed me to be successful. We already know that it’s easier to achieve something once we make the commitment to do so. This works with emotional clearing as well.
As I lay in bed at 3 a.m. that morning, I wrestled with whether I would really drag myself out of bed and start typing it all out. I knew there was 95% chance it would work if I got up and did the exercise so I did. The payoff was that it worked, and I fell back to sleep immediately after. Each time I do it, I gain more confidence that it will work for me and the cycle of success breeds more success.
What does this mean for you?
If you have worries that interfere with what you are trying to do, consider trying emotional clearing as a a stress management technique. We describe two in Chapter 3 of Reframing Change: uncensored journaling and the Sedano Method. Mad-Sad-Scared-Glad is another. Over the next few months, we intend to put more techniques up on the web at www.leadingconsciously.com and I may post some on this blog as well.
What do you have to gain? How about increased clarity, focus, and ability to achieve your goals?
- What do you when you get really upset?
- Do you have an emotional clearing process that works for you?
Note: I am grateful to my friend and colleague, Jo BowensLewis, PsyD of the Center for Cooperative Change in Atlanta, who introduced me to mad, sad, scared, and glad as the four primary emotions according to transactional analysis theory.
- Latting & Ramsey, Reframing Change, Chapter 3.
- Hemenover, S. H., Augustine, A. A., Shulman, T., Tran, T. Q., & Barlett, C. P. (2008). Individual differences in negative affect repair. Emotion, 8(4), 468-478.
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