How to Control (and Minimize) Negative Emotions

Stoicism has gotten a bad rap.

These days, when people think “stoic,” they think “emotionless.” “Indifferent to pleasure and pain” is now literally a definition of the word “stoic.”

That’s not what the Stoics were going for.

For the Stoics, the goal is not to avoid all emotion. It is to minimize negative emotion. I can see where people get confused, though.

I am often accused (usually jokingly, but often enough to take the hint) of being emotionless.

I disagree with this assessment. I feel plenty of emotions. I just try not to dwell on negative emotions.

And I try not to act on them, either.

No Upside to Negativity

Dwelling on negative emotions is all downside.

Nobody enjoys feeling frustrated or angry. We’d rather feel happy and calm. We don’t aspire to negativity.

Generally, doing things we don’t like comes with a positive trade-off. People work jobs they hate because they want the income. We do things that we don’t enjoy in order to make other people happy. We sacrifice of ourselves for our family and friends.

This all makes sense.

With negative emotions, though, there is often no benefit. In fact, it can make things worse.

Not Solving the Problem

Your frustration with traffic is not going to get you to work any faster. It’s just going to raise your blood pressure.

Yelling at a waiter is not going to cook your food any faster. Depending on the waiter, it may result in some culinary sabotage instead.

Getting angry at my wife is not going to solve a disagreement. It’s more likely to lead me to say something that makes everything worse.

Getting the best results in any situation requires you to know how to handle negative emotions.

Things We Can’t Control

You can’t stop feeling negative emotions. At least as far as I can tell.

I can’t force myself never to feel anger or frustration.

And that’s fine. Emotions are not bad. But they are often bad at coaching our actions.

One of the cornerstones of Stoicism is understanding and discerning the difference between things you can control and things you can’t.

The emotions that you feel are outside of your control. The way you act after feeling those emotions is within your control.

Don’t beat yourself up for feeling negative emotions. But work to let go of them quickly.

Two Steps to a Better Life

There are really only two steps to making good decisions in spite of negative emotions.

The first is to recognize when you are feeling one. Learn to identify in yourself when you are angry. Recognize when your heart starts racing. Notice when you start feeling a need to lash out.

When we feel these negative emotions we are more likely to act impulsively. Work to catch yourself and pause before acting. “Better to trip with the feet than with the tongue,” as the Stoic Zeno said.

Next, keep the end goal in mind.

Our instinct is to lash out and push our negativity onto others. Often this is in the form of blame, but sometimes we just feel the urge to express our frustration or other emotions.

Think about the result you want.

Will expressing your anger help reach that result? Sometimes, but be honest with yourself.

Will blaming someone else help? Probably not.

Instead, take a deep breath and think about what next action will actually push you towards the goal you want to reach.

It Gets Better

This gets easier over time.

At first it is very difficult to think clearly through negative emotions. When I was angry, all I wanted to do was express that anger. I could not think through a positive action to take.

I used to have to walk away from situations and come back later or close my eyes and breathe deeply for 30 seconds. (In my personal experience I have found that the key is to get your heart rate back down a bit. It is hard to think rationally when your body is in fight or flight mode.)

Now it is usually instinctual and instantaneous. Sometimes I still close my eyes and take one deep breath.

Feel the frustration. Pause. Think of a next step.

It’s not necessarily easy to master, but once you do life becomes a lot easier to manage.

What about you? How do you manage negative emotions? Do you have any tricks that you’ve learned?

16 thoughts on “How to Control (and Minimize) Negative Emotions”

  1. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with being stoic. I really identify with a comic I read from the Oatmeal a while back about happiness. He says that many people assume we’re either sad or happy; it’s two ends of an extreme. But his point is that you can be satisfied with your life and not be like, “OH MAH GAH, SO THRILLED WITH MY LIFE RIGHT NOW.” We can be all right as long as we don’t focus on the negative.
    Mrs. Picky Pincher recently posted…How The Picky Pinchers CleanMy Profile

  2. I used to play a bit of poker. In that game, you can do everything right and still lose a hand. Overall, this result is okay because if you continue to do everything right, you will win in the long run. The trick is to keep your emotions in check. When things go wrong, you need to avoid going on “tilt” and use past results as a excuse to play badly. That’s when you start making bad decisions and become a loser in the game. I try to make sure all the big decisions I make in life are made from a balanced mindset to make sure they are truly the best decisions.

  3. I try to keep an even keel most of the time even under stress. My husband’s better at it than I am, and we’re both working at training our daughter not to lash out or bottle up anger and stress as she’s prone to feedback loops with both.

    I am concerned that fewer and fewer people seem to have the skill of managing their negative emotions, at least with regards to people they don’t know. There seem to be people who think it’s utterly fine to take out frustrations on strangers, particularly service workers who are stuck. I suspect it’s both a cause and symptom of eroding community.
    Emily @ JohnJaneDoe recently posted…Satisfy Your Book-Loving Soul with Free and Cheap E-BooksMy Profile

    1. I find the same thing. I wonder if it is that anonymity has made us meaner on the Internet and that has seeped into real life or if there is some other factor. Either way, definitely a great trait to pass on to kids.

      Thanks, Emily!
      Matt recently posted…Why We Need To Fail MoreMy Profile

  4. As I feel myself getting caught up in emotion, I’m trying to pause more. As you said, we need to come down from the fight or flight reaction and a pause or walking away helps. I remind myself that these feelings too shall pass and I try and figure out why I rushed into a particular emotion. Often it’s not about the current situation but something else that’s going on.

    1. I struggled to commit to meditation for a while, as well. I found that the Headspace app really helped me build it into a habit. Once I built the routine I got rid of Headspace and switched to a free app.

      Thanks for the comment, Mrs. Groovy!
      Matt recently posted…Why We Need To Fail MoreMy Profile

  5. I’m loving all the breathing, in the moment, mediation comments I’m seeing. That stuff works! Mindfulness is awesome.

    Also interesting about the internet/anonymity thing. I wonder. Also, I’ve had women older than me tell me my generation is so much more stressed out that they were–even women who ran their own businesses on top of running their families. They say the internet has added another layer to keep up with while you’re still supposed to be doing all the other stuff we used to culturally. Thought it was an interesting perspective, but I certainly hope the stress and greater feeling of detachment doesn’t deteriorate the way we treat each other as human beings.
    Femme Frugality recently posted…8 Signs You May Be in an Abusive RelationshipMy Profile

    1. That’s an interesting thought. I wonder if it is related to how the Internet makes social comparison a lot easier than it used to be. You used to see your neighbors, co-workers, and friends whenever you were around them. Now you see everyone you’ve ever met (and some that you haven’t) all the time. Plus, you’re mostly only seeing highlights on Facebook or Instagram, which makes others’ lives look a lot more impressive than they probably are. I wonder if this added layer makes us feel more pressure to keep moving and building and stressing.

      Thanks for the thoughts!
      Matt recently posted…Why We Need To Fail MoreMy Profile

  6. Hopelessly non-confrontational, my natural state is to internalize stress. Partly it is good (my husband and I never fight) but partly I know I am not letting some stuff out that I probably should. I do not give in to stress in traffic or other notoriously blood-pressure raising situations. But that is if I am alone. If I am with someone who is reacting very outwardly to stress, I am immediately infected. I wish I had better strategies for dealing with the stress and negativity of others, even if it isn’t directed at me. Physically removing myself is my the tool I have and you can’t always do that.
    Linda at Brooklyn Bread recently posted…The Case for CompassionMy Profile

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