Three Practices for Writing through Negative Emotion

We all want to feel good. That’s just a normal, human desire. The catch is that by always trying to feel good and not own the feeling bad part of ourselves, we allow negative emotion to grow. Bad feelings grow in the dark, where they are left to fester. Personally, I find it difficult to admit I’m feeling negative emotions like anger, sadness or anxiety. However, when I shine the light of awareness and open acceptance on the emotions I’ve labelled ‘bad’ I’m giving myself the opportunity to learn from them. This can transform them into something helpful.

Photo by engin akyurt on Unsplash

I’m a bit of a magpie when it comes to self-help tactics. I collect exercises and ideas from different books, research papers and pod casts. I use some, discard others and cobble together my own practical applications for the ideas that seem to fit with me. Below are three of my favoured writing practices for recognising, accepting and transforming ill-feeling.

Emotions are simply information

Life presents us with many different situations. Our emotions help guide us through them and prompt us towards positive action. Anger is just as valuable as happiness. When we deny our feelings we strip ourselves of the power needed to move through the situation that has evoked that emotional response within us.

Instead of labelling emotions as good or bad, positive or negative, it can help to simply view them as input. Similar to the way we might view any other sensory stimulus, like smell or vision.

Viewing our emotions as a form of sensory input frees us from being them. You and I are still ourselves even when we’re feeling something uncomfortable like anxiety, sadness or anger. These emotions aren’t who we are; they are just information about how we’re sensing our world. Instead of being an ‘angry woman’, I become someone who sometimes feels angry and therefore, can choose to manage that energy towards a positive outcome.

Recognise your feelings

You’ve probably heard the expression ‘name it to tame it’. Recognising what we are feeling is the first step to accepting and transforming emotional energy. Recognising doesn’t mean identifying as it. It’s noting, without judgement and observing how it affects us physically — shorter breaths, faster heartbeats and feeling hot are common physical manifestations of difficult emotions.

Simply taking time to stop and note the physical feeling accompanying an emotion can sometimes help to reduce its hold on us. It switches our perspective from being the emotion to actively feeling it. This engages the right side of our brain and the higher processing of our prefrontal cortex while also connecting the left, logical, labelling analytical side. In doing so, we make a little space between ourselves and the feeling.

At times labelling and noticing how we feel isn’t enough to shift the energy. That’s when I use the writing practices below.

Journaling to paint an emotional picture

The idea is to take the label we’ve given our feeling above and describe it. Dissect and colour it. For me, anger, anxiety and depression are block colours. Anger is red, anxiety is thundercloud grey and depression is a bland beige.

The act of describing uses the higher right side of our brain. But the left side needs to get involved too, as this is where our linguistic centres are housed. By inviting both sides of our brain to really look at how we are feeling, we can begin to see the emotion as information. Often times, the descriptive practice itself is enough for my anger, anxiety or unaccountable sadness to dissipate. It may not happen immediately, but because I allow it to voice itself, its power is reduced.

To give you an example, at a month or two into the UK’s lockdown I felt angry, but there wasn’t one single thing I could honestly direct it at. I wrote around it to begin with — ‘Maybe I feel angry because of this, or that, or another situation.’ It felt good to express the feeling, but it didn’t really lessen it. If anything, it became a little stronger. Instead of describing, I was ruminating on paper. When I began describing the anger, it started to lose its hold on my mind. ‘This anger is red and pissed off. It’s a ‘had enough’ kind of feeling, it’s scratchy and irritated like yesterday’s burn or an itchy tag in my clothing.’

The descriptive language was using both sides of my brain. It allowed my mind to process the feeling, get it out in the ‘open’ of my head and see it for what it was. By the end of that day, I’d settled to a more reasonable level of equilibrium.

Writing with purpose

Sometimes people irritate us and we find ourselves carrying resentment or even anger around for days. In these situations, the above kind of descriptive writing doesn’t always help. Fortunately, I have spent time working with addiction treatment centres and have seen the transformation people can make in their lives when they have the right tools. It is this that led me to an exercise I use to manage ill-feeling towards others before it gets out of hand and ruins my week (or month).

This is a practice borrowed from AA’s 12 steps and adjusted a little. It helps me get a clearer and more balanced view of the situation I am holding onto.

I start by detailing the grievance and the areas of my life it has affected. This is fairly straightforward and is just the beginning. Don’t spend too much time, just get the basics down. Dwell for too long and you’ll be fuelling the fire that’s already burning you up.

The next step is to analyse and reflect on the part you played. Be honest here. There is always two sides to a story and rarely is anyone blameless. Look for the behaviour that was self-serving, selfish, dishonest, fearful, and caused harm. Most of the bad decisions we make and the upset in our lives has at least one path back to these feelings. Most of our poor behaviour comes from these feelings too — that’s why processing and releasing them is so important. It helps us to correct our course.

The middle step is quite humbling, but it also has the potential to be used as a kind of self-flagellation. That’s why the final step is also important. This is where you ask yourself what went well. Also, figure out how you could have handled it better and if there is anything you can do to repair your feelings and relationship.

Reasons to be cheerful

This has become a daily practice for me, but it came about when life was a bit meh. Nothing was going wrong but not much was getting me excited and moving. I write a small page of things I love. Each sentence starts with ‘I love…’. Each thing listed is real — I do believe it. If I don’t believe it, I’m not allowed to write it down. It can be from the past, present or future.

A brief example goes something like this…

I love my quiet morning starts. I love being a Mum. I love living surrounded by woodland. I love working from home. I love the taste of strong coffee in the morning.

It lasts for the whole of a lined A6 page. It takes me about 5 or 10 minutes to complete. It teaches my brain to focus on the positive things in my life and strengthens the neural pathways needed to do exactly that.

None of these exercises requires you to be ‘a writer’, all of them ask you to look at yourself and your life from a slightly different perspective. Naming and describing your feelings helps you to stop seeing them as who you are. Working through grievances on paper, what I think of as writing with a purpose, can help you become more measured in your relationship. Taking time to regularly focus on the good things in your life strengthens your ability to look on the bright side and with it, grow your resilience and ability to move toward new situations and experiences. We all want to feel good, but to do so, we need to move through the ‘bad’ feeling we sometimes experience. Writing your way through is one way you can.

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