It’s hard to imagine that we are barely a century away from the invention of the automobile and the airplane. The rate of advancement in technology and science is stunning, and it seems sometimes as if there is no problem that we can’t solve. While that might be true for science, it may not be true in the arena of personal health. Recent studies continue to show that we are facing an epidemic of depression, as anxiety, hopelessness, and suicidal thoughts are higher in young adults than ever before.
This increase is largely attributed to the expansion of digital devices, which has also led to an upward trend in feelings of being bored and lonely. While many are doing more online-only socializing, they might also be getting less quality sleep because blue-light augments these negative feelings. There is also a whole other side to this problem that nobody is talking about.
This rise has been correlated to the proliferation of digital devices, whose integration into every facet of our everyday lives has increased our feelings of boredom and loneliness. In-fact there’s been significant growth in the area of tech-free schools for the rich along with the fact that tech icons like Bill Gates & Steve Jobs both raised their kids without digital devices.
In the past decade we now see more socializing occurring over the phone, and even whole groups of kids standing in a circle looking at their phone. All this and even the negative effects blue-light has on sleep quality, have all received much coverage in the media, but there is a whole other side of the problem that is a side-effect that has led to this proliferation in mental health issues.
It all comes down to feelings.
We are losing the ability to sit and consider our feelings. Despite exercises like meditation gaining popularity, it is not among young people—perhaps because it is boring. Young people want an easy to understand use for meditation, but what they don’t understand is that it is not merely a tool to clear the mind or help with productivity. Rather, meditation provides a platform to do the uncomfortable, and that is listening to our feelings (instead of ignoring them) and find out what is bothering us.
Much like how we tend to make breakthroughs in our work or get an epiphany in the shower, it’s only by depriving our brains of external stimulation that we finally allow ourselves to be alone with our own thoughts.
A part of the problem is that we aren’t always aware of our feelings, and even when we are, we tend to identify with them too much.
The Art of Letting Go
Two books have significantly changed how I think about and interact with my emotions. Many people are uncomfortable with their feelings because they fall into the traps of either ignoring them or identifying with them too closely. The later I learned about through the very helpful book The Untethered Soul. I was astounded by the realization that my thoughts and feelings do not define me. Feelings come and go and by adopting a mindset of being an independent observer of these emotions has granted me a level of emotional stability I once thought was never even possible.
The other book that had a big impact was Letting Go by David Hawkins. His premise is that we are constantly either acting on or repressing and ignoring feelings. This means that they become a controlling feature of our lives without us even realizing it.
One method of positively dealing with negative emotions is to have an attitude of openness and curiosity towards their presence instead of fear and apprehension. When I get angry, sad, or frustrated, I should recognize that emotion is there for a reason and be thankful for it. Discovering the reason it is there is much better than defaulting to distracting myself or running away from it.
Think about the last time you acted out of anger or fear, maybe you accused somebody without knowing all the facts, maybe you lashed out and later had to apologize. We’ve all done things we later regretted because in the moment we became so overwhelmed with the emotion that we lost control and defaulted into a habitual pattern that leaves a destructive path wherever it goes.
It’s easy to remain in these negative feedback loops, acting the same way every time we feel something negative, but it’s quite possible to live a happier life, one where you love ourselves unconditionally—one where you don’t leave a path of battle-scars on the people you run into throughout your lives.
No one likes feeling pain, but the pain is your body’s way of telling you that something is wrong. Similarly, while it is easy to feel that negative emotions are the bane of evil, but they are there to convey something to you, and they provide an opportunity to understand yourself or your circumstances in a new light. While properly recognizing and listening to your emotions is easier said than done, it is essential so they do not control our lives. Here are some ways we can do just that.
There’s a documentary I watched a few years ago called Extreme OCD Camp. I thought it was interesting at the time, but didn’t think much beyond that until I saw the episode as described in Mark Manson’s book, The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck. These kids have physical and mental ticks they may have to live with for the rest of their lives, but as Mark describes in the excerpt below, first they must come to accept what they have.
In 2013, the BBC rounded up half a dozen teenagers with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and followed them as they attended intensive therapies to help them overcome their unwanted thoughts and repetitive behaviors.
There was Imogen, a seventeen-year-old girl who had a compulsive need to tap every surface she walked past; if she failed to do so, she was flooded with horrible thoughts of her family dying. There was Josh, who needed to do everything with both sides of his body—shake a person’s hand with both his right and his left hand, eat his food with each hand, step through a doorway with both feet, and so on. If he didn’t “equalize” his two sides, he suffered from severe panic attacks. And then there was Jack, a classic germaphobe who refused to leave his house without wearing gloves, boiled all his water before drinking it, and refused to eat food not cleaned and prepared himself. OCD is a terrible neurological and genetic disorder that cannot be cured. At best, it can be managed. And, as we’ll see, managing the disorder comes down to managing one’s values.
The first thing the psychiatrists on this project do is tell the kids that they’re to accept the imperfections of their compulsive desires. What that means, as one example, is that when Imogen becomes flooded with horrible thoughts of her family dying, she is to accept that her family may actually die and that there’s nothing she can do about it; simply put, she is told that what happens to her is not her fault. Josh is forced to accept that over the long term, “equalizing” all of his behaviors to make them symmetrical is actually destroying his life more than occasional panic attacks would. And Jack is reminded that no matter what he does, germs are always present and always infecting him.
The goal is to get the kids to recognize that their values are not rational—that in fact their values are not even theirs, but rather are the disorder’s—and that by fulfilling these irrational values they are actually harming their ability to function in life.
The next step is to encourage the kids to choose a value that is more important than their OCD value and to focus on that. For Josh, it’s the possibility of not having to hide his disorder from his friends and family all the time, the prospect of having a normal, functioning social life. For Imogen, it’s the idea of taking control over her own thoughts and feelings and being happy again. And for Jack, it’s the ability to leave his house for long periods of time without suffering traumatic episodes.
With these new values held front and center in their minds, the teenagers set out on intensive desensitization exercises that force them to live out their new values. Panic attacks ensue; tears are shed; Jack punches an array of inanimate objects and then immediately washes his hands. But by the end of the documentary, major progress has been made. Imogen no longer needs to tap every surface she comes across. She says, “There are still monsters in the back of my mind, and there probably always will be, but they’re getting quieter now.” Josh is able to go periods of twenty-five to thirty minutes without “equalizing” his behaviors between both sides of his body. And Jack, who makes perhaps the most improvement, is actually able to go out to restaurants and drink out of bottles and glasses without washing them first. Jack sums up well what he learned: “I didn’t choose this life; I didn’t choose this horrible, horrible condition. But I get to choose how to live with it; I have to choose how to live with it.”
The lives of these kids improved dramatically once they started to accept the very thing they feared the most. Then they had to go and expose themselves to their fear; they had to face the obstacle and get outside their comfort zone.
These kids had a unique set of monsters they had to face, but the truth is we all have monsters we’ve faced at one point or another, and the parallel is that we need to accept and let go of the underlying fear that is driving our behavior.
Recognizing the Emotion
It’s one thing to find a better way of dealing with a negative emotion, but it’s another thing entirely to recognize that it’s there in the first place. We often end up defaulting to three actions that are mostly unbeknownst to us.
Suppression and Repression
The most common ways of dealing with negative emotions is to push them down consciously by suppression or put them aside unconsciously with repression.
Think of Repression as the result of denying the thought or experience any-time it comes up. Eventually, the root cause of the feeling becomes blind to our conscious awareness. On the other end, Suppression is more like avoidance and distracting by straining yourself to put all your attention on other areas of your life.
I’ve personally had to unravel some suppression that occurred early in my life. As described in my book, From Foster Care to Millionaire, I focused so intensely on my business as a way of not thinking about how fucked-up of a situation I was in. I suppressed all the negative emotions by obsessing on what I thought was something good.
I’ve encountered many other people who seemed to have an unhealthy obsession with something we see culturally as a good thing. Body-building, Hustle Culture, Work Addiction and much more. Often, we become hyper-focused on something in our lives to give us a deeper level of meaning, hoping that will get us through the suffering.
“Those who have a ‘why’ to live, can bear with almost any ‘how’.”
―Viktor E. Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning
Our brains are wired to make associations. If your father verbally abused you as a child for doing something he didn’t like, you might lose your temper as an adult if the lady at the store is annoyed that you didn’t put your shopping cart back. The two situations may not seem related, but they have been by your brain. When you lose your temper, it is important to know whether it is stemming from the current situation or is really the result of an earlier one.
We ultimately express negative emotion through various forms of psychosomatic stress, addictions, emotional illnesses, and dysfunctional interpersonal relationships. It is often only after deep contemplation or psychotherapy that we uncover the true reasons for why we were driven to do the things that we did.
Many people in our society believe that expressing their feelings frees them from their feelings, but it is quite the contrary. Expressing a feeling tends to propagate the feeling and gives it greater energy than it originally had.
Our rationalizing mind prefers to keep the true causes of our emotions out of our awareness and it does this by blaming events or other people for causing a feeling Fundamental Attribution Error, which makes it easy to feel like an innocent victim to the world around us.
Our rational mind prefers to hide our emotions behind our awareness by blaming feelings on events and people other than ourselves. This allows us to live our lives as innocent victims of the world around us. Imagine that someone proved that you were wrong. The easy thing to do would to be upset at that person for the way they did it, instead of thanking them for helping improve your accuracy. That might be your impulse because of years of having to deal with your older brother picking on you growing up. If you ever get flustered, upset, sad, or angry over something and couldn’t figure out why it is likely there was an experience earlier in your life that you are still holding on to in a negative way. In general, times when your reaction is not proportional to the situation is a good indicator this might be the case.
Say you got upset when somebody else proved you wrong about something. Instead of thanking that person you might get upset instead, but perhaps that anger is really from all the years your older brother picked on you growing up.
If you ever became flustered, upset, sad, angry over something and couldn’t figure out why perhaps there was an experience earlier in life that you’re still holding on to in a negative way.
Serious cases of hidden emotions might require something more formal such as psychotherapy, but at times a solution can be as easy as learning to recognize the emotion in the first place. Here are some steps to better recognize, label, and ultimately let go (if needed) of our emotional states.
Step 1) Recognizing Emotions
Psychiatrist Luke Reinhart details in his book The Diceman his experiment with a game called “Emotional Roulette.” He details how he decided to make all of his decisions on the roll of a die, and eventually decides to try this technique with his clients.
“The student lists six possible emotions, lets a die choose one and then expresses that emotion as dramatically as he can for at least two minutes. It’s probably the most useful of the dice exercises, letting the student express all kinds of long-suppressed emotions which he usually doesn’t even know he has.”
The point of this game is to help learn emotional control, because by practicing an emotion, we familiarize ourselves with how it feels. This game can be used to discover and express emotions we never knew were there, or were uncomfortable with
By practicing an emotion, we familiarize ourselves with how it feels, so the next time the emotion comes up in our day-to-day life, we can recognize it before we let it get out of control. Familiarity comes from awareness, and familiarity helps you maintain control by removing fear.
When we add something like emotional roulette to our meditation or awareness routine, we give ourselves a chance to feel emotions we don’t normally allow ourselves to feel. Such a game can help remind us that we choose how we feel, nobody else causes us to feel angry, sad or happy. (Credit to Troy Erstling for first sharing this)
Step 2) Labeling Emotions
Pixar’s hit movie “Inside Out” features the internal struggles of Riley, the main character, as shown through her emotions. Each of her emotions is a character that has a personality that reflects the very emotion that is being portrayed
Here are some of those characters:
While the audience in the movie is able to watch the interactions of these emotions, in reality, we are much more like Riley, who is completely unaware of what is going on. The joy of the movie is that as these emotions are brought to life and personified, they become easier to identify and figure out why they exist, to begin with
As a personal example, I’ve always liked to think of Mr. Grumpycat (RIP) as a character I identify with whenever I find myself behaving in a not-so-nice fashion with those around me. Equally so, the first visual image that comes to mind when I think of fear is Beaker the Muppet.
The simple exercise of visualizing and personifying emotions can give you a much greater degree of control and self-awareness the next time an emotion comes knocking, as it’s much easier to have a conversation with an emotion if it’s a character in your head.
All this is simply about giving your emotions space to breath, to talk. It’s easy to yell at somebody when you’re angry, to worry constantly about the future, to bear resentment towards somebody over something they did to you, but sometimes all it takes is to take a moment, turn off the TV, put our phones away, go sit in a quiet room to be alone with our feelings and let them come out.
Step 3) Letting Go of Emotions
“Letting go involves being aware of a feeling, letting it come up, staying with it, and letting it run its course without wanting to make it different or do anything about it. It means simply to let the feeling be there and to focus on letting out the energy behind it.”
―Letting Go, David Hawkins
The act of letting go can be one of the most difficult emotional journeys we all have to go through in order to get past our childhood traumas and negative feelings we’ve been forced to encounter throughout our lives. The Untethered Soul taught me that we are not our feelings, that we are merely witnessing our thoughts and feelings and then choosing which ones to attach our identity to.
Much of human history has stemmed from reactions to negative feelings. Monarchs have killed based on meaningless banter, leaders make corrupt decisions that effect unspeakable suffering on millions. The very act of living involves suffering, but by coming to terms with our feelings, we can better navigate it all, and be happier and more productive.
Take for example that one of your best friend’s birthday is coming up and you feel resentful and stingy that they’re three years younger and are making more money than you. Despite wanting to go shopping for a present, you just can’t seem to get ourselves to go buy it. Now if you stopped for a moment to ask yourself what the opposite of resentful and stingy was, you’d uncover forgiveness and generosity. Then we’d just start looking inside ourselves for the feeling of forgiveness. You may find that you need to forgive yourself for not being where you want to be financially, and in doing so the resentment will fade away.
Another method I like to draw on is similar to the concept of personifying our emotions, but it takes it a step further, and I actually have a conversation in my head with the conflicting emotions. Creating a mental picture that seeks to give our emotions a personality, and then to let them interact like a script on a TV show can give you the time to understand why they’re there in the first place.
I like to think this imaginary conversation as a method of meditating on the emotions, not in the traditional sense of a sitting down Buddha, but to sit with eyes closed in a bit of quiet contemplation on the feelings that are most strongly present. I’ll welcome the feelings and have a little chit-chat as if I’m a therapist to my emotions. Here’s what a conversation could look like:
I hear a knock at the door and go to open it, “Oh hey Grumpycat, how are you today?”
“Oh piss off!” Grumpycat shouts as he walks in quickly with a look of agitation on his face.
“What has you so upset Mr. Grumpycat?” I ask.
“Oh don’t pretend like you don’t know! Rebecca at work didn’t approve the project after you spent the whole past week putting the budget together!” Grumpycat exclaimed.
“Hey, hey now, we both knew there was a chance the company wouldn’t have been able to approve it, and on top of that, I didn’t sleep that well last night,” I said.
“Meh, well what are you gonna do about it, huh?” Mr. Grumpycat said with a stern look now.
“We’ll figure something out. I’ve been through much worse, and there’s no need to get our panties up in a bunch over this small setback, okay?”
“It still irks me ya know, but okay, I guess I’ll let it pass, but you’re gonna have to come up with a plan or else I’m going to bring ScaredyCat over and we’re all gonna trash this place,” said Grumpycat.
“Hah, you know you could be a comedian, or maybe even a meme on the internet you’re so funny, now get your arse out of here and I’ll see you later…”
*Mr. Grumpycat flashes a momentary smile that is quickly squashed by his grumpy nature and proceeds to walk out*”
While the concept of using your imagination to conceptualize your emotions as animated cartoon characters that are having a conversation in your own head might seem absurd, I can say anecdotally it works for me, although I haven’t been able to find any scientific studies that demonstrate its effectiveness. Either way, I encourage you to give it a go and let me know whether it works for you.
Truly letting go of negative feelings is perhaps one of the hardest things we ever have to deal with in life, because our feelings are so heavily ingrained with our ego. Whether it's an abusive relationship, childhood trauma, or just the feeling that we have been wronged in some way—all of these are circumstances that can torment us for weeks or years. The key is to just keep letting go whenever we become conscious of our need to do so. Like any habit, it will take repetition, but in time you will encounter less resistance with each passing encounter .
So I challenge you, the next time your feelings come around, take a moment to create a mental image of what that emotion looks like, sit with it, and find out why it’s there. More than likely, a few minutes of sitting with the emotion is all you’ll need to allow it to pass.
If any part of this essay connected with you in some way, I encourage you to check out the following resources to help improve your mental and emotional resilience.