We all know that life can be hard sometimes. But did you know that your brain is likely making your life much harder than it needs to be?
That’s because one of your brain’s primary goals is to avoid pain, both physical and emotional.
The problem with this approach is that pain, especially emotional pain, is inevitable in life, especially if you want to grow by trying new things, have relationships with people who don’t always do what you want them to do (i.e., every other human on the planet), and put yourself and your work out into the world for potential criticism.
Our brains try to spare us from emotional pain by fighting against negative emotions when they arise. If you’re like most people, your brain is fighting against negative emotions on three levels.
The first is by avoiding the negative emotions themselves by trying to find a distraction or numbing out the feeling with a hit of dopamine, which provides some temporary relief. (Think bingeing on chocolate, wine, Netflix, online shopping, social media, etc.)
The second is by creating more negative emotion by telling ourselves that we shouldn’t be feeling negative emotion in the first place, otherwise known as resisting negative emotion. For example, you might feel tense when you are preparing a big presentation at work. That’s no big deal and is a common response to preparing for public speaking. But if you start berating yourself for feeling nervous, i.e.“What is wrong with me? Why am I so nervous about this?”, it will only create more negative emotion (probably shame) about the negative emotion you already had (nervousness). You will then also start to resist the shame by finding a distraction or numbing the feelings. This is counter-productive and makes your life much harder than it needs to be.
The third is by reacting to the negative emotion in a way that doesn’t serve you. For example, if someone cuts you off in traffic and you feel overtaken by your emotion and yell at the other driver even though your kids are in the car. Reacting also makes our lives harder because we have to live with the consequences, which are almost always negative.
There are a few things you can do to coax your brain into making your life easier for you.
How To Make Your Life Easier
The best way that I know to make your life easier on yourself is to learn to feel and accept your negative emotions.
Negative emotions are (by definition) unpleasant, but if you can learn to allow them, their power over you will diminish. For example, let’s say that you’re feeling angry after a colleague interrupted you in a meeting. When you’re feeling angry in the meeting, you probably start spinning in your head about what he did and how he shouldn’t have done that, and scanning for memories of all the other times that you can remember that he’s done something rude.
But while you’re spinning in your head, you’re not focusing on the meeting anymore, and when your boss asks you a direct question, you might not even hear it.
This reaction to anger is not useful. To diminish its hold on you, try just feeling the anger and accepting it immediately, so that you can move on and get your attention back to where it needs to be.
You can do this by identifying the emotion and then accepting it immediately by saying “and that’s okay.” For example, “I’m feeling angry and that’s okay. Humans feel angry from time to time and I’m feeling angry now. Nothing has gone wrong here.” Then, get back to business. (You can always go back and process your anger later at a more productive time.)
Similarly, if you’re feeling the urge to avoid a negative emotion with a dopamine hit, consider stopping yourself and saying: “I feel the urge to eat these cookies, and that’s okay. It’s okay to have an urge and not act on it. I can just notice it, instead. I can notice how my brain thinks the cookies will solve the problem. I can notice that, actually, the cookies will not really solve the problem.”
Then try to find the primary emotion that is creating the urge for you, and accept that emotion. “I’m feeling restless and that’s okay. This is what it’s like to feel restless. I can handle this. It’s okay to feel restless sometimes.”
Just acknowledging the emotion and letting yourself really feel it will bring you a greater sense of ease, even while the negative emotion is still present.
Lower Your Expectations
When I teach clients how to coach themselves to feel better by choosing better-feeling thoughts, sometimes they want to use the tool to eliminate all negative emotion from their lives. They want to feel better 100% of the time. After all, the world (especially Madison Avenue) likes to make us think that we should be happy all of the time.
The problem with that is that life really is 50/50. If you don’t know what sad is, you can’t really know what happy is, either. Sad is what makes happy possible, just as we need shadows to really see light.
To expect your life to be perfect and happy all the time is to create unnecessary suffering for yourself and make it even harder. By accepting that negative emotion exists and should be present about 50% of the time, we can stop running away from the negative emotion.
This is true for all aspects of our lives: our careers, our relationships, raising our children, etc. Expect that it’s not always going to be wonderful. There will be stumbles, failures, and hard times. That doesn’t mean that anything has gone wrong. It means that everything is happening just as it should.
When you lower your expectations, you’ll notice something interesting: life gets less hard when you let it be hard.
A good way to keep this top of mind is to put up post-it notes or reminders on your phone that say things like: “Nothing has gone wrong. I feel ____ and that’s okay.”
Welcome the negative emotions when they arise and notice the lightness and openness that follow.