Name it. Greet it. Delete it.
If you follow my Facebook page you know that I share a lot of neuroscience articles and articles that help you understand yourself better so you can make positive changes easier. One of the recent ones noted that in order to deal with negative emotions, it can be helpful to start by naming what you are feeling. This kicks off a neurological process that actually makes working through the negative emotion a bit easier.
Of course, we cannot stop at just naming it, we have to do more in order to truly work through things. And it often takes several repetitions of the process to get through it; there is no time schedule to follow, no expectation of things always being as simple as the title of this article: Name it. Greet it. Delete it. But simplicity helps us to remember where to start. So let’s look at each step in the process, using anxiety as an example of what we’d like to work through. Bear in mind that what we are ‘deleting’ is not the emotion itself, we are simply working to delete our toxic response to it.
We’ve already discussed some of the supporting literature on this, check my Facebook page for more detail of the actual neuroscience.
Sometimes we are at a loss for words, and what we are feeling can be so confusing or overwhelming (or both) that naming your experience may seem impossible. Ok. Let’s just start right where you’re at. First, breathe. Then just start writing (typing is fine) whatever comes to your mind. That may be a list of feeling words like angry, sad, confused, etc., and/or it may be a narrative of what comes into your mind. Don’t worry about spelling, grammar, or staying on-topic, just flow. Then go back and see what words/sentences seem to get in the ballpark of what you’re dealing with. Very often, this will make it easier to narrow down the emotions you are feeling. Continuing with our example of anxiety, other words that may be on your final list include:
We need to become familiar with, and even accustomed to these feelings, and comfortable enough with them that we don’t get overwhelmed. This takes some practice, so don’t worry if this step seems a bit odd. I’ll explain why we need to greet these feelings.
I mentioned in the first paragraph that naming our feelings sets off a neurological process that helps us understand what we are dealing with so that we can make decisions about how to respond to them. It also encourages us to accept our feelings, both positive and negative, as helpful indicators that we can leverage to improve our lives. Remember, the physical burning pain is the ‘negative’ experience that signals us to get our hand off the stove, and not to put it there again. This is how the negative emotions help us.
So how do we greet the feelings? That’s up to you, but a good place to start is silently (or out loud if nobody’s around) introducing anxiety, etc. to the rest of the Feelings Family, “Anxiety, meet anger, joy, and the rest of the group.” It sounds corny because it is. That corniness is actually what helps us bypass some defenses mechanisms you may have kicking around.
Then take a moment to really feel the feeling you are working with. Where do you feel it in your body? Does it feel shaky? Tense? Buzzing? Achy? Is there a color that you associate with it? Even asking yourself if there is an animal that really represents it, or a movie/TV character. The idea is to really engage it and to become familiar/accustomed to it. This is different that compulsively ruminating on it; the goal is not to just feel self-pity, but instead, the goal is to clear the toxic effects of judgment so you can find what the emotion’s presence is trying to tell you.
Writing down what how this negative emotion (anxiety) is helping you encourages you to be clear on the positive result you are hoping to accomplish. Perhaps you are anxious about a presentation at work or school. Generally speaking, anxiety is a heightened state of awareness that is trying to help you pay attention to what you are doing. This is why a little bit of test anxiety helps you perform better because you are more likely to read the questions more closely and avoid careless mistakes (of course, too much test anxiety and you feel overwhelmed with analysis paralysis). As you write the feeling words, and the narrative about what you are dealing with, you’ll notice that you understand it better, almost as if you’re watching it from outside of yourself. This is called the Witness stance, or Meta-Cognition. Now for getting the anxiety to recede.
Just as a lightning rod draws lightening to a focused point, any kind of ceremony draws the attention of the participants to the focal point of the ceremony. We are going to leverage this idea by deleting the toxic side of our negative experience. It is important to remember that we are NOT trying to completely get rid of any emotional experience, we are only trying to get rid of the toxic effects of your negative emotional experience (anxiety leading to paralysis, in our example).
Now that you have some writing about what you are feeling and what your goal is, let’s take the writing about the toxic part of your emotion and ceremoniously get rid of it. This can mean deleting those parts on a computer, or if it’s printed/handwritten, you can use an eraser to erase it, or dig a hole and bury it, rip it up, throw it away, or carefully burn it in what is known as a fire ceremony. Please be sure to practice safety. A fireplace is ideal. Whatever you do, the act is designed to symbolize your acknowledgment of the toxic effects of the emotion and your letting go of that.