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Understanding negative emotions: anger

Despite enabling us to identify our needs and act in our best interest, anger is a misunderstood emotion. Because we tend to see anger in all-or-nothing terms, it is often perceived as a dysfunctional emotional expression. While anger tends to be connected to relationship problems and even abuse, it is not at all times experienced in its extreme form or linked to irrational behaviour. Anger also comes in a wide range of feelings and intensities, each with its own function and message, some of which are very powerful and motivational. To help you gain a greater understanding and respect for you anger, this article is dedicated to exploring it in detail.

Understanding negative emotions: anger
Anger is a sign that we feel wronged by something or someone

The role of anger

Be it in its passive or more active form, anger is a sign that we feel wronged by something or someone. When angry, we are reacting to an attack – real or imaginary – to our self-esteem, which leads us to feeling rejected, ignored, isolated, hurt or criticised. Anger also works as to give us back what we have lost from that (perceived) violation, namely, the respect and love for our own selves. Furthermore, anger is there to help us regain a sense of control over ourselves, as well as the negative emotions that surround it, such as sadness and fear. For that reason, anger also helps us regulate feelings of inadequateness.

Feelings related to anger

Frustration, irritation, resentment, annoyance and rage, for instance, are all forms of anger. When we are exposed to a great threat to our self-esteem for a long period, anger may be felt in its highest intensity and turn into hatred.

How anger is felt in the body

Like fear, an angry reaction is triggered by the amygdala. When we become angry, our brain prepares us to fight an enemy or flight the scene. As you will notice on the below list, the bodily sensations associated with anger are also the ones we tend to experience when taken by fear, another emotion connected to the fight or flight response:

  • Fast heartbeat
  • Short breathing
  • Increased body temperature and blood pressure
  • Armouring (tense muscles, especially back and neck)
  • Headache
  • Stomach ache
  • Clenching the jaw and grinding teeth
  • Shaking, trembling
  • Sweating
  • Dizziness

Adaptive and maladaptive anger

Adaptive anger is like any other negative feeling that is experienced in a functional manner. When we experience anger healthily, it lets us know that something is not right and, then, it fades away after a little while (on average, 20 minutes). In that sense, healthy anger is productive, because it serves a specific purpose at a particular point in time, so it is short-lived and context dependant. That type of anger also directs our focus to change, or helps us start contemplating it. When we are stuck with maladaptive anger, however, it is neither felt nor regulated in that fashion, but it tends to last longer (build-up anger) or shorter than needed to create awareness and motivate us to act, or it is used as a sole means for regaining a sense of power and safety. Our failure to process and deal with the problems highlighted by our anger – when it arises – might result in behavioural, physical and mental health problems, such as relationship difficulties, migraine headaches and depression.

What your anger says about you

The anger warning reminds you that your needs are not being met. The nature of those needs may vary, from feeling loved and valued, to emotionally balanced, in control or safe.  Anger highlights vulnerability and feelings of powerlessness, like a reminder of our limitations as individuals. Therefore, we feel angry when we cannot meet our goals for happiness and wellbeing. When our core beliefs are too rigid and do not match objective reality, we feel let down and angry, not only at ourselves, but at others and even life itself.  The relationship we have with our anger – be it by repressing it or becoming reactive and acting out – is also connected to a history of unresolved childhood trauma.

Before rushing to judge, deny or hide your angry feelings, check in with yourself and try asking the following questions:

  • What needs have I got that are not being met?
  • What feelings of inadequacy may my anger be masking?
  • Is my anger productive or maladaptive?

By understanding your anger and registering its message, you start building a healthier relationship with it and yourself, so that all that energy that it so effectively triggers can also be directed to learning, better relationships and personal growth.

Understanding negative emotions: the fear factor

When we explore emotions in greater depth and bypass their unfavourable connotations, we come to appreciate their wisdom and value. From an evolutionary perspective, fear has helped us survive and even thrive as a species. The fear of death and loss of health, for instance, is a tremendous motivator to stay alive, as well as an excellent reminder of how important it is to invest in a healthy lifestyle, or not to engage in violent behaviour. An increasing sense of self-preservation – highlighted by the emotional significance of fear – has allowed us to prioritise and value life, avoiding practices that threaten our peace and security. If you are interested in boosting emotional confidence, congruence and intimacy, this article will help you refresh your knowledge and recognise the significance of fear.

Understanding negative emotions: the fear factor
Fear is an emotional response to what we perceive as a threat to our wellbeing

The role of fear

Fear is an emotional response to what we perceive as a threat to our wellbeing, be it physical or emotional. The fear reflex is there to protect us from any type of danger, be it real or imaginary. Because of our ability to feel fear, we are able to protect ourselves from things, animals, people (even ourselves) and situations that expose us to harm to our minds, bodies or relationships. As fear is not only an automatic response to danger, but a learned behaviour, it also depends on direct instruction or experience to gain greater significance in our lives. For that reason, we are more inclined to feeling fearful towards what we have learned to fear, be it from our parents’ stories, cultural values or past events that were unpleasant in any way and, as a result, secured their places in our memory network.

Feelings related to fear

Anxiety, distress, apprehension, tension, horror and panic, for instance, are all fear states. We often forget when worrying excessively, for instance, that we, essentially, fear someone, a certain situation or outcome.

How fear is felt in the body

The fear response is a product of the amygdala, which is part of the limbic system or “emotional brain”. The amygdala is responsible for getting you physiologically ready to deal with threats, in other words, to fight an enemy, fly the scene or freeze on the spot. As you can notice below, the most common bodily sensations associated with fear can be connected to those three basic fear responses:

  • Fast heartbeat
  • Short breathing
  • Armouring (tense muscles, especially back and neck)
  • Shaking, trembling
  • Tingling
  • Numbness
  • Light-headedness
  • Sweating
  • Dry mouth

Adaptive and maladaptive fear

Fear is adaptive when it is productive. Stereotypically, productive fear raises our awareness of potentially life threatening situations, such as standing too close to the edge of a cliff. Maladaptive fear, on the other hand – even when it arises, initially, from a healthy fear response such as escape and avoidance – is exaggerated and pathological, such as the one felt by sufferers of anxiety disorders. This last modality causes much more harm than good, compromising psychological, emotional and physical wellbeing.

What your fears say about you

As fear is also a learned behaviour, it is deeply connected to the views we hold of ourselves, the world and others – our core beliefs. When those core beliefs are rigid and lead to automatic thoughts that are filled with cognitive errors, such as “all-or-nothing” and “catastrophizing”, for instance, they exaggerate the relevance or probability of negative outcomes, making one more vigilant and susceptible to feeling fearful. This heightened state of alert leads to feelings of unsafety, inadequateness and insecurity, which interfere with one’s ability to function with confidence, be it in a social, academic or professional scenario. If you often feel easily affected or even overwhelmed by excessive worrying, anxiety or a constant need for reassurance, it is probably time to check in with yourself and re-evaluate the core beliefs that are at the root your fear. Rigid core beliefs such as, “It is shameful to make mistakes”, “If I do not worry, something bad will happen”, “The world is a dangerous place” and “I cannot trust others” are renowned for making one feel powerless and afraid.

The best way to deal with fear is not to repress it through denial or disguise it as anger, but befriend it with honesty. You can embrace your fear by admitting it (even if only to yourself), respecting its wisdom and learning a little more about yourself from it. Even when uncomfortable and maladaptive, fear tells us something about our vulnerabilities and warns us of areas that need our attention.  Above all, facing our fears reminds us of the limitations of our humanity and promotes growth and development, allowing us to live more fulfilling and rewarding lives.

The dos and don’ts of emotional support

The dos and don'ts of emotional support
Giving emotional support is not as straightforward as you may think

Giving emotional support is not as straightforward as you may think. When we acknowledge that most of us were raised in an environment of emotional neglect and perfectionism, it becomes clear how a lack of emotional intimacy affects our ability to deal with feelings naturally. The habit of distancing ourselves from feelings, especially when negative, and refusing to embrace their wisdom and our own vulnerability, only creates an even bigger distance between others and ourselves. If you would like to change that scenario and feel more connected, here are the dos and don’ts of emotional support:

1- Do not problem solve

Emotional support does what it says on the tin. Therefore, it is not about coming up with ideas to solve a problem, but dealing with the feelings that surround it. Unless there is a clear call for help, most of us do not need practical advice when talking about the issues that concern or upset us. It is also worth noticing that the urge to “help” and solve other people’s problems or afflictions – even when help is neither needed nor requested – is at the core of codependent behaviour.

2- Focus on feelings

Emotional support comes from a place of attunement to another person’s need for having his or her feelings recognised and validated. There is nothing more comforting when we are feeling low, frustrated or anxious, for instance, than having someone around us that respects our inadequacy by honouring the way we feel. When you say to someone in distress, “I can see that that is upsetting to you”, regardless of what is going on or if you agree with that person’s reasons or emotional reaction, you make him or her feel seen, accepted and understood.

3- Do not make it about you

Our complexity as individuals is so immense, that no experience is ever felt in an equal fashion by two different people. As soon as you start talking about your experience, giving examples of how you have dealt with a similar issue to the one brought up by the other person, the focus is turned to you. As it has been mentioned before, emotional support is not about analysing and comparing experiences and, supposedly, learning from them, but noticing and addressing feelings.

4- Do not antagonise

To antagonise is to oppose, which is the opposite of what is understood by “to support”. While an emotionally congruent and supportive person favours the expression and recognition of feelings, be it in himself/herself or others, an antagonising, selfish or emotionally neglectful one has the habit of ignoring, repressing, avoiding, denying or normalising them. When you behave like the latter, you are not giving emotional support, but alienating the other. You can do that quite automatically, unintentionally and unconsciously, by using common sense judgement, motivational speech, excessive positive psychology and platitudes, for instance.

5- Be empathic

Empathy is like a mirror, or the ability to feel, see and experience what the other is feeling, seeing or experiencing. Simply put, when someone feels sad, angry, fearful or disgusted, those are the feelings you focus on and seek to validate. Moreover, you display an empathic attitude when you do the following:

  • Take time to listen: let the person speak and do not interrupt. Do not rush to get that tissue or glass of water either, but focus on what the person has to say first.
  • Stay with the inadequacy and embrace it. Be emotionally tolerant by allowing emotional expression and flow.
  • Agree with the other. Put yourself in his or her shoes and try to see the world from his or her perspective.
  • When lost for words, use the following:

“It must have been hard”

“I see that that is upsetting to you”

“I also hate when that happens”

“I hear you. That must have been annoying for you”

 “Feeling anxious sucks, doesn’t it?”

“ I can see that you are angry, what happened?”

“It is awful when that happens”

“You must have felt uncomfortable”

“I understand that that is not easy for you”

“I am sorry you feel that way”

“I see your point”

“That’s sad/scary/disgusting/awful/annoying!”

“I understand how that must have made you feel”

“It must suck feeling that way”

  • Give the other a sign of your affection. If you have an intimate relationship with the other person, you can also offer him or her a hug or a kiss, once he or she has finished talking and dealing with his or her feelings of inadequacy.

How we perpetuate self-despise

Even though most of us agree that self-hatred is detrimental to emotional health and self-esteem, fighting that self-sabotaging tendency is not as straightforward. That is because very few of us were raised with enough love and respect in order to build a solid base for our self-esteem, or an organic sense of unconditional self-love. Western upbringing is often the opposite of that, but largely affected by transgenerational trauma and controlling, perfectionist and punitive beliefs. Such values do not foster a healthy relationship with the self, but make a child feel like a third class citizen already from an early age. That process is noticeable in the internalisation of our parents’ critical voices, which become our “inner critic” or “gremlin”. Naturally, undoing that negative programming takes time and conscious effort. To help you understand what keeps you stuck on that self-hate mode, here is how we perpetuate self-despise:

1- Labels

How we perpetuate self-despise
Self-hatred is detrimental to emotional health and self-esteem

Name-calling oneself with words of negative connotation such as “stupid”, “fat”, etc., is more harmful to your self-esteem than you think. Words stick, hurt and can easily become your truth. Moreover, the habit of saying them to yourself – even in a playful tone – is usually a sign that you are failing in loving and accepting yourself unconditionally. Labelling is one of your critical voice’s most powerful resources to shame and put you down. It is virtually impossible to value yourself when your self-appraisal vocabulary is mostly belittling and denigratory.

2- Perfectionism

Despite corresponding to a self-sabotaging way of thinking and behaving, perfectionism is very common and widely accepted. Contrary to popular belief, however, always striving for excellence is not a positive trait, but a tendency that, in the great majority of instances, promotes intolerance and self-hate. We are not made for getting everything absolutely right, 100% of the time. The complexity of human beings – or the great variety of our emotional and physical states – does not allow us to be constant and express a single and unchanging pattern of behaviour. Insisting on “always doing your best” (and self-criticizing every time you do not achieve that goal) is like cognitive punishment for being human.

3- Emotional intolerance

Do you blame yourself and others for feeling anger, shame, sadness and fear? Do you feel ashamed for having and expressing negative feelings, inadequate or even angry when others allow themselves to honour their feelings in a non-abusive manner? If yes, you are emotionally intolerant. Emotional intolerance leads to self-contempt and a judgemental attitude, be it exclusively towards your own emotional states or others’. The habit of rejecting your human qualities, such as the ability to connect with yourself, the world and others trough emotions, makes you feel empty and inauthentic in the long term. As time goes by, you start feeling increasingly more alone and disconnected. As your disappointment in yourself grows, you keep the vicious cycle of self-hate alive, even when conscious of its dangers.

4- Unresolved childhood trauma

Excessive self-criticism, intense feelings of shame, inadequateness and sadness, as well as built-up anger are amongst the most common effects of developmental trauma. If you have never taken the time to process, both psychologically and emotionally, the adverse events that marked your childhood years, it is much harder for you to feel competent and loveable. Due to the insidious, prolonged and complex nature of childhood trauma, it tends to remain untreated for a long while, affecting the victim’s sense of worth, self-protection and self-preservation. There is no better environment in which to learn how to hate and despise oneself than that of toxic families. Abuse and neglect are renowned for leaving a lasting impression in trauma victims, compromising – if not addressed and terminated – their ability to value, protect and like themselves.

5- Rigid beliefs

Rigid beliefs are deeply connected to low self-esteem and other mental health issues such as anxiety and depression. Dysfunctional behaviours, such as the ones mentioned above, are created and kept by inflexible thinking filled with cognitive errors such as “all-or-nothing”. Firstly, you are much more complex than a single word is able to define. By the same token, making a mistake or not being able to hide your disappointment, for instance, does not make your whole self a failure. Rigid beliefs such as “I am boring” (labelling), “I can only feel proud of myself when I stand out” (perfectionism), “expressing negative emotions is a sign of weakness“ (emotional intolerance) and “If I trust others, I will get hurt by them” (unresolved childhood trauma) rob you from your right to develop a rewarding relationship with yourself and others. It is as if only a negative, global and unchanging perspective were accurate.

If negative and critical remarks against yourself and your performance come more naturally to you than tolerant and self-compassionate ones, it is time to turn your focus to nurturing self-esteem. To fight that dysfunctional tendency, try out the following:

  1. No more labels: stop being mean to yourself. Have a zero tolerance with labels and start catching and correcting yourself when you use words of a global and negative meaning.
  2. Value your efforts: become a “glass half-full” type of person. Quickly step up to defend your efforts, and literally shut up your inner critic.
  3. Stop judging “negative” emotions. Experiment with observing how you feel with curiosity. Do not fight your feelings, but embrace them and learn from them.
  4. Heal your trauma wounds: if you suspect to have suffered childhood trauma, seek the help of a professional to reorganise your narrative and manage the effects of trauma.
  5. Restructure your beliefs: choose flexible beliefs that reflect the adult and confident you, who is open to love and a fulfilling life.

 

4 reasons why feeling sorry for yourself helps you grow

Intolerance against negative feelings is so widespread, that it is acceptable to feel sorry for others, but not for oneself. The belief that supports that rigid, all-or-nothing mentality, often equates feeling sad or even depressed to an act of self-victimisation, as if melancholy were solely a means to deceiving others or attracting attention to oneself. Those who identify with that perspective struggle to validate their own suffering, especially when persistent. Contrary to popular belief, however, never truly accessing the root of emotional discomfort does not make it go away, but it tends to extend its life unnecessarily. To help you let go of the prejudiced notion that feeling and expressing vulnerability is always a sign of weakness, here are 4 reasons why feeling sorry for yourself helps you grow:

4 reasons why feeling sorry for yourself helps you grow
Feeling sorry for yourself may work as a wake-up call to make positive life style changes

1- You become more emotionally aware and whole

When you allow yourself to feel without judgement, you naturally become more receptive and mindful of your emotional states. Learning how to live at peace with your feelings, in turn, boosts emotional congruence and confidence, which also means giving a powerful voice to your authentic self. As a result, you feel more connected with the whole of you: your mind, body and true identity, leading a more fulfilling and rewarding life.

2- It motivates you into taking action

Feeling sorry for yourself may work as a wake-up call to make positive life style changes. That is because life dissatisfaction and disappointment tend to lead to a process of intense self-evaluation and reassessment. There is nothing quite like hitting rock bottom to motivate one into adapting to new circumstances, repairing relationships and replacing bad habits with healthier ones.

3- It helps you improve emotional health

Increased awareness and respect for negative feelings enables you to quickly identify what is wrong and do something about it. As physical pain, emotional discomfort is there to warn you of potential dangers to your wellbeing. When you address your own inadequateness in a conscious, mature manner and without shaming and blaming yourself, you feel more centred and stronger. Your ability to deal with whatever is bothering you proactively – and even ask for help if needed – increases, which influences emotional health positively.

4- You become more compassionate and tolerant

The extremely biased connotation of “feeling sorry for yourself” reflects a culture of emotional neglect and intolerance. Thinking badly about yourself for feeling disheartened only promotes self-contempt and a self-criticising attitude. When you start embracing and honouring all your feelings, however, you not only become more understanding and empathic towards yourself, but others. Consequently, you also connect more easily with those around you and relationships become more functional.

It is not human to feel good or happy all the time. Therefore, it is not shameful to feel sorry for yourself when sadness takes over. Nobody should feel guilty for expressing genuinely felt negative emotions. If you would like to feel connected and live a more authentic life, it may be time to let go of your prejudice against feeling and expressing negative emotions, such as fear and shame. An all-or-nothing mentality that wrongly assumes that if you allow yourself to feel the full intensity of your sadness or even cry, “you will never stop”, keeps you emotionally stuck and hinders your personal growth and development. To fight that tendency, start acting “as if” you do not care about how others perceive your pain and dare to be yourself, whatever that means.

3 developmental trauma beliefs and the problems they cause

3 developmental trauma beliefs and the problems they cause
Dysfunctional beliefs lead to dysfunctional coping strategies

Traumatic events change our perception of ourselves, the world and others. Because our sense of safety and trust are shaken and sometimes even shattered by trauma, we “learn” from the pain we feel by changing our views and adapting, cognitively and emotionally, to our circumstances. In developmental trauma – a series of adverse experiences in childhood which affect one’s development –  that change is quite dramatic and it tends to transcend time. Imagine an adult who, as a child, was repeatedly criticised and attacked verbally by an abusive mother and/or father. His rigid and negative beliefs, formed as a result of trauma, would probably prevent him from holding a coherent view of himself as a competent and lovable adult. These beliefs would also serve as to warn him of the dangers of love and intimacy that, supposedly and for him, would apply to all close relationships. Living in a world in where safety cannot be felt even in the family home, this trauma victim would feel empty and lost, as if his existential wound could never be healed.

As dysfunctional beliefs lead to dysfunctional coping strategies, and those, in turn, to mental health and relationship problems, it is worth being conscious of how your thinking could be affecting your happiness. If you suspect to have suffered developmental trauma and would like to become more conscious of its effects, here are 3 developmental trauma beliefs and the problems they cause:

1- “I cannot trust others”

Developmental trauma victims struggle to believe in and rely on other people. That is because they had their trust broken very early in life and at a time of intense vulnerability. Since they were betrayed by those who were close to them – namely their primary caregiver(s), such as their mother and/or father – the damage caused by such loss is far greater. Their fear of rejection and abandonment, even when completely unjustified and unrelated to their current circumstances, often results in obsessive self-reliance. Their lack of faith in people’s good intentions and ability to become a positive influence on their lives make it impossible for them to ask and even accept help, when needed. That tendency gives rise to codependent behaviours and loneliness, as well as it increases their probability of becoming depressed, due to their need to isolate or neglect their own feelings when things get tough. A healthy, intimate relationship with oneself and others is seldom achieved without conscious effort and dedication.

2- “I am unlovable”

When a child does not have her feelings validated or is constantly attacked or ignored, he is not able to separate his parents’ anger and neglectful attitude from his own sense of self-worth. Because children do not have the intellectual sophistication of an adult, they immediately associate their parents’ attitude with something to do with themselves, as if they were intrinsically related (“If my mum is not interested in me/is angry at me, it is because I am boring/not good enough”). Naturally, that feeling of unworthiness is also frequently present in children who are physically and/or psychologically/emotionally abused. In order to deal with the torturing feeling of inadequateness that comes from believing that “There is something wrong with me”, these trauma victims work hard to be noticed and feel worthy of love and acceptance. Self-esteem is low and “built” from the outside in through conditional love. They become perfectionists, codependents, approval junkies and people pleasers, who find it hard to say no. All of which are driven by a powerful fear of rejection.

3- “The world is a dangerous place”

Living in fear creates a state of alertness that shapes the way the brain develops and processes information about the environment. A child that is raised by emotionally unstable, anxious, extremely inconsistent or unpredictable parents, sees the world as a dangerous place filled with threats to his well-being. Guided by the thinking that “something bad is about to happen” and “I am weak/helpless”, as well as the anxiety that follows, his behaviour becomes dictated by fear. The trauma victim’s biased negative thinking and low self-confidence turns everything into a challenge. Making changes, creating new habits, taking risks, standing up for oneself and meeting new people, as other similar behaviours that require self-confidence, are a source of unease, and, in some cases, even panic. Because high anxiety crushes motivation, it gets in the way of personal, academic and professional achievement. It also affects sleep and physical health. Relationships suffer as a result. Anxiety, as a powerful mood killer, makes a person seem inaccessible, indifferent, distant and even difficult, which are traits not usually seen as attractive for those who feel whole and are emotionally intelligent.

As depressing as all of the above may seem, those trauma beliefs that may be causing you so much pain can be restructured. If you identify with the above, start actively challenging negative thinking that is stopping you from trusting yourself and others. Be objective when you catch yourself catastrophizing and stop taking everything personally. Bear in mind that our subjective reality is built from background knowledge, which is organised and categorised through core beliefs. That knowledge – highly subjective and loaded with emotional significance – does not equate, necessarily, to fact.