Is there a “right way” to deal with negative feelings?

(ESL learners – click on the bolded words to see explanations and notes. Try the exercise at the bottom after! 🙂 )

Feelings: those pesky little things that populate our mental landscapes and sometimes get in the way of our everyday lives. They can infiltrate you at any moment. While eating breakfast. While standing in line at the supermarket. While staring wide-eyed at the ceiling in the middle of the night. While studying for an exam. While having a job interview, desperately trying to look normal.

Feelings follow no rules and know no discipline. They often come in groups, or rather, they barge in rowdily, without warning and rudely unannounced, like a bunch of drunken teenagers caterwauling their way through your head and heart.

There is a very wide range of feelings. Not all of them feel good. Some of them might have a sour taste to them. Others might smell a bit funny. Others may just sit quietly in the corner until they suddenly explode. And others might start banging around all your mental pots and pans (so to speak).

I find these unbridled creatures fascinating. Human nature is so hard to encapsulate, and much of the decisions we make are indeed tied to our emotions. I started reading and watching it all. Motivational speeches. Productivity podcasts. Sermons on acceptance. Meditation handbooks.

I soon found myself at odds with all the materials I was reading. There was a lot of overlap, but there were also some marked contrasts… or, to be more precise, two very opposing perspectives emerged. How does one put all this together? Let’s take a look:

Perspective #1

There are indubitably several books out there about this perspective, but the first one that pops into mind is Constructive Wallowing by Tina Gilbertson. This book advocates for a “live and let live” philosophy regarding feelings, arguing that feelings—any and all of them—exist in order to be felt, and that doing this leads to better self-compassion, renewed energy, and emotional wellbeing. To show this, here are a few excerpts from the book:

Yucky feelings can only really leave us alone once we feel them fully. An unfelt feeling is trapped inside us just as surely as a rabbit in a cage with a combination lock. … The takeaway is that wallowing constructively in so-called negativity will enable you to get over said negativity faster and more surely than any other way, including positive thinking and using a gratitude journal.” 

“When we refuse to (w)allow in “negative” feelings, what happens is that we push away the part of us that feels that way. This creates a fragmented self, with an Acceptable Me and an Unacceptable Me. This fragmenting, in itself, is painful because it hurts when we don’t feel whole. We came into this world whole and intact, and that’s how we’re meant stay. When we’re not whole, we miss ourselves.”

“What’s a negative emotion? I’d like you to consider the idea that there’s no such thing. For our purposes, emotions are like your toes. They’re exactly what they are—the way that Nature intended them to be. Are your toes positive or negative?”

“Even before it’s fully mature, the human brain develops the ability to interfere with the body’s natural processes, and to corrupt them. For example, if we throw up our food to avoid gaining weight, we interrupt the natural process of digestion. When we pick at a scab, we interfere with the body’s natural process for healing wounds. And when we try to ignore our emotions instead of experiencing them, we interfere with the natural process that allows feelings to dissipate. But Nature is bossy! Your stomach will try to digest any non-toxic thing that goes into it. Your skin will do its best to repair an open wound. And your heart will keep trying to let your unfelt feelings complete their natural cycle, by continually bringing those feelings to your attention.” 

“It’s common to believe that if you have yucky feelings about something, and you can’t do anything about it, you should just ‘let it go.’ You’re supposed to somehow let go of your fear, your regret, your longing, your grief. Whatever the painful feeling is, according to popular wisdom, you must simply ‘let it go.’ If you’re like me, you might have scratched your head and said, ‘Well, okay… But how do I do that?’

You’re absolutely right to question how you’re supposed to make that happen. You’re on hundred percept correct in NOT understanding how to do that, because the way we were taught to let go of feelings doesn’t make sense. And it doesn’t work. 

The way we’re told to let go of feelings amounts to ignoring them. We try to ignore bad feelings. But it doesn’t make them go away. It has the opposite effect, triggering the escalation cycle and making them hang around longer than necessary.

In an effort to let go of painful feelings, most of us end up stuffing our feelings down somewhere inside ourselves, effectively putting them in a cage, locking the door and trying to forget where the key is. Which, of course, is exactly the opposite of letting them go.

If you have wild rabbits living your yard, and someone tells you to let them go, do you round them up and put them in a cage? Of course not. That wouldn’t be letting them go, it would be hanging on to them. Stuffing feelings down is like putting rabbits in a cage; it makes it impossible for them to go anywhere, let alone ‘away.

And once those bunnies are locked up together, you shouldn’t be surprised if they (and probably a good many more) are still there the next time you look. The only way out is through the door… that you locked. Expecting them to somehow leave anyway doesn’t make sense. 

Feelings want to be let go, but they need to go on Nature’s terms. They have to exit through our hearts, where we can feel them. They want to grow and bloom there before they die. Rabbits want to do what rabbits do; feelings want to take root and live out their short lives in our hearts. That’s their nature, and it’s our design, too. 

You probably don’t want a field full of ugly feelings blooming in your heart. Maybe you’d rather not feel those bad ones at all. But in order to let go of painful emotions, you have to feel the pain, and let it matter to you. And that’s what makes it so hard. Wallowing is an act of courage as well as compassion.” 

Perspective #2

This is the thought touted by many advocates of the law of attraction and related lines of thought. The principle is that “like attracts like,” therefore letting those negative thoughts sit in your head will inevitably attract more of them to you—not just to join the growing emotional gathering in your head, but in the form of negative things happening to you and around you. Now I know this might seem a little far-fetched to some people, but you might as well hear it from one of the experts—here are some excerpts from the Dominating EDGE – Law of Attraction podcast by Jeff Hammer, “the Law of Attraction coach”:

“Remembering emotion is energy, and energy is magnetic, I’ll state again how the law of attraction works. Our thoughts and emotions attract similar even stronger thoughts and emotions, which in turn become a physical manifestation.”

(episode: Pay Attention to Your Emotions – June 17, 2019)

“Your life today is the result of every thought you have had and every emotion behind those thoughts. But more important, your thoughts, beliefs, and emotions today will manifest into your life in the future.”

(episode: Raising Our Vibration – June 13, 2019)

“If you’ve lived life at all, we’ve all been hurt, we’ve all been panicked and desperate before. As we discuss the law of attraction, we know that everything begins with a single thought. As we describe our troubles, we start down this rabbit hole and the more we describe, the more, the worse things become. We must continue to remember that as we put our thoughts out, describing our troubles, either verbally to friends or family, or just in our mind, we invite similar thoughts and similar emotions which can actually produce a physical manifestation of additional problems into your life.

You can’t make something better by focusing on what is wrong. So as we complain about our troubles, complain about our finances, complain about our relationships, our job, our weight… we’re focusing on what is wrong, and what we’re doing is we’re giving that energy. We need to take our attention off what isn’t working because as we know, as students of the law of attraction, what we focus on expands. If we’re focused on a problem or limitation, it will expand in our life. So let’s evict any part of our thinking that doesn’t align with where we’re going.

I talk a lot about where you’re going. So let me ask you a question today. What is the one area of your life which you tend to complain about? You tend to describe your troubles to yourself and others. And what is it you’d want in that area of your life? Do you have a clear goal or picture of the perfect result? (You should!) So let’s reframe whatever the complaint is and start to proclaim what it is we want to experience. Never, never, never again let the negative thought or conversation around it pass your lips or your brain.”

(episode: Stop describing your troubles – July 22, 2019)

I felt somewhat stumped when I heard both these perspectives. There is often some amount of differing opinions in any area of thought, but coming across two such wholly opposing points of view is a real head-scratcher. Granted, they come from professionals with different backgrounds, fields, and careers, but you’d think there would be some common ground when they deal with the same issue.

If we consider them as separate and unreconcilable lines of thought, the first perspective certainly strikes me as more freeing, as the second one brings about a frightening paranoia that if I think long enough about a banana peel, one will soon drop out of the sky onto my head.

But, maybe they can work together on some level. Whether or not you believe in the law of attraction, living in ignorance can never be a good thing. No matter what, you have to first acknowledge what you don’t like in your life or the negative emotions you’re having—after all, you can’t change something that you’re pretending isn’t even there. On the other hand, fixating on negative emotions doesn’t sound very healthy either. As clever as the bunny cage analogy is, I personally feel like if you take it too far, it could end up being the equivalent of watering a weed while hoping it will die. If you stop feeding a stray cat, it will eventually stop coming to your door and go look for food elsewhere (just to clarify, I have nothing against feeding actual stray cats).

The way I would try to reconcile these two perspectives is this: the first thing you should do with any feeling is accept it. This means, first of all, acknowledging it, and second of all, understanding it. If you’re not really sure why exactly you’re feeling something, you might consider spending some time “constructively wallowing” in it and discovering the reasons behind its existence. But, try not to purposefully add more fuel to the fire. Don’t try to bring up the negative feelings yourself or make a practice of finding “negative feelings” to wallow in—if they come up, notice them, spend some time with them, but don’t go out looking for them. Instead, seek out positive feelings, spend some time meditating in them, or possibly other techniques for positivity and the law of attraction if you identify with it.

Anyways, I’m really not a great expert on any of this. If you have any other insights or experiences to add, I’d love to read about them in a comment below :-).

ESL Notes (50 words / expressions)

Definitions written with reference to Cambridge Dictionary

pesky (adj): annoying or causing trouble. For example, many people find younger siblings (brothers or sisters) to be pesky sometimes. (Back to the text)

to infiltrate (verb): to slowly move into a place. For example, a new idea can “infiltrate” the government, meaning the government members gradually start to think and believe the idea. (Back to the text)

to stare (verb): to look at something for a long time with your eyes wide open, often because you’re surprised, scared, or thinking hard about something. When people have trouble falling asleep, many often stare at the ceiling while they lie in bed. (Back to the text)

to barge in (phrasal verb): to quickly and suddenly enter a room. This is often seen as rude because the person did not knock or was not invited to come in. (Back to the text)

rowdily (adverb): this is the adverb form of “rowdy,” which means very noisy. (Back to the text)

drunken (adj): drunk. Note that both drunk and drunken can be used as adjectives to describe a person who has drunk too much, but only “drunk” can be the past participle of the verb, as in the sentence “he has drunk too much.” (Back to the text)

to caterwaul (verb): to make unpleasant noises, like a cat. (Back to the text)

to bang around (verb): if you bang things together, it means you make very loud noises with them. The word “around” adds the tone that you do it all over a room, for a longer period of time. (Back to the text)

pots and pans (nouns): these are kitchen tools used to cook or fry food. In the picture below, you see a pan on the left and a pot on the right. (Back to the text)

Black and Gray Cooking Pot and Frying Pan With Tomatoes

so to speak (expression): this is an expression that is used when you want to tell someone that they shouldn’t understand something you’re saying literally (for example, obviously people don’t actually have pots and pans in their head, so I’m making a metaphor). (Back to the text)

unbridled (adj): uncontrolled. This word is often used with feelings or abstract nouns: unbridled joy, unbridled enthusiasm, unbridled lust, unbridled greed, etc. (Back to the text)

to encapsulate (verb): to express or summarize the most important facts about something. For example, many documentaries try to encapsulate World War I or World War II. (Back to the text)

(to be) at odds with (idiom): if two things are at odds with each other, it means they disagree with each other. You can say that two people are at odds, or that one person is at odds with the other (if you state both people in the subject, then you don’t need the “with” after “at odds”). (Back to the text)

indubitably (adverb): definitely, without any doubt. (Back to the text)

yucky (adj): disgusting or unpleasant. (Back to the text)

(to be) trapped (adjective): caught and unable to move. For example, to get a spider out of your house, you first need to trap it in something, for example a glass covered by a paper, so that it does not run away, and you carry it outside. Trapped is the adjective: so, the spider is trapped inside the glass. (Back to the text)

takeaway (noun): the main message that you learn from something. (Back to the text)

to wallow (in a feeling) (phrasal verb): to stay in a negative emotional state without trying to get out of it, as if you are enjoying it. (Back to the text)

so-called (adj): used to show that you think a word that is used to describe something is not correct. For example, if someone has “so-called friends,” they are not real friends. (Back to the text)

said (thing) (adj): the thing that was just mentioned. (Back to the text)

there’s no such thing (phrase): it doesn’t exist. (Back to the text)

bossy (adj): a person who is bossy is always telling people what to do, as if he/she is everybody’s boss. (Back to the text)

longing (noun): a feeling of wanting something very much. This also exists in verb form. Maybe people long to find love, or long to travel the world, or long to become rich and famous. (Back to the text)

to amount to (verb): to be the same as. (Back to the text)

to trigger (verb): to cause something to start. For example, if a sad movie triggers tears, it means it causes tears–it causes people to start crying. (Back to the text)

to hang around (phrasal verb): to stay in the nearby area. (Back to the text)

to end up (doing something) (phrasal verb): to do something you didn’t originally plan to do. For example, many students plan to study on the weekend, but then end up watching Netflix all day. (Back to the text)

to stuff (something) down (phrasal verb): push down. To stuff something inside a container means you put it inside without being careful at all, pushing the object inside with force. This often happens when the item is squishy and the container is small: for example, you might try to stuff a pillow into a small bag, making it small enough to fit. Or, careless students stuff their books into their bag without being careful to keep the books in new condition. To stuff things down means to push them in a downwards direction. In the case of emotions, it means you try to hide them and not feel them, you “push them down” deep into yourself where you then try to ignore them. (Back to the text)

to round (things) up (phrasal verb): to gather things (or people / animals) in one place. (Back to the text)

to hang on to something (phrasal verb): to keep something. (Back to the text)

a good many more (phrase): “good” here emphasizes that it’s a large number. You can also use this with specific numbers to make it sound like the number is large. For example, “A good 100 people showed up at my first concert!” (Back to the text)

to bloom (verb): this verb refers to a flower opening in the spring or summer. It can also mean to develop successfully for things other than flowers. (Back to the text)

to live out (the rest of your life) (phrasal verb): to live until the end. This verb is most often followed by “the rest of his/her/your life”: He lived out the rest of his life in New York. (Back to the text)

to tout (verb): to praise something, to say good things about it often, to “advertise” it. (Back to the text)

line of thought (noun phrase): a particular way of thinking. (Back to the text)

far-fetched (adj): probably not true, and hard to believe. (Back to the text)

stumped (adj): to be very confused or not know the answer to something. (Back to the text)

differing (adj): different from each other. This adjective is only used when there are many things: differing books, differing opinions (the noun must be plural, and the adjective is always placed before the noun as an attributive adjective). (Back to the text)

to come across (phrasal verb): to find something by accident, without looking for it. (Back to the text)

opposing (adj): fighting against each other, or on opposite sides. This adjective can also only be used with a plural noun. (Back to the text)

a real head-scratcher (noun phrase): a head-scratcher is something that is very confusing or mysterious. (Back to the text)

common ground: an area of shared interests, beliefs, or opinions between two or more people. (Back to the text)

to strike (someone) as something (phrasal verb): if something strikes you as strange, it means you think it’s strange. (Back to the text)

to bring (something) about (phrasal verb): to result in something, to cause something. (Back to the text)

to fixate on (verb): to think about something too much and not be able to stop. (Back to the text)

to take something too far (idiom): to do something too much. (Back to the text)

a weed (noun): a wild plant that grows in an unwanted place. Dandelions are common weeds. (Back to the text)

a stray cat (noun): a cat that lives on the streets. (Back to the text)

to bring up a feeling (phrasal verb): to start thinking about it, or make it appear. (Back to the text)

to seek something out (phrasal verb): to look for something, often for a long time. (Back to the text)


Want to start using these words and make sure you don’t forget them? Try this exercise! Think about these questions (discuss them with someone) or write down your answers, using the word or expression in your discussion or answer.

  • Have you ever met a child or an animal who was pesky?
  • Do you see any new ideas infiltrating your country’s government?
  • Do you find it rude if people stare at you? Do people openly stare at tourists in your country? Have you ever seen something so beautiful you had to stare at it for a while?
  • Do/did your family members ever barge into your room without knocking? Did this annoy you? Have you ever done this yourself?
  • In which area of your city do you hear the most rowdy people at night?
  • What do you think of parents who let their children bang around their toys (or other items in the house)? Do you think they are giving the children freedom, or is this bad because the kids don’t respect the objects and don’t take good care of them?
  • There is an expression which is that “(name) wears the pants in the relationship,” which means that that person is the dominant one in a relationship. Do you know any couple where the woman wears the pants in the relationship, so to speak?
  • Can unbridled joy become a bad thing?
  • Do you think movies about WWI / WWII do a good job of encapsulating the wars?
  • Do you know any siblings (brothers or sisters) who are always at odds with each other?
  • What food do you consider to be yucky?
  • What could make a person feel trapped in a job they don’t like?
  • Think back to a non-fiction book you recently read (preferably a self-development book). What was its takeaway?
  • Do you find there is something relieving about wallowing in a negative emotion?
  • Have you ever had a friend who you later discovered was only a fake friend, or a so-called friend?
  • After you finish reading a book, do you give said book to someone else, or do you store it somewhere, or do you talk about said book with your friends?
  • Some people say there’s no such thing as “soulmates” — do you agree? What reasons do you think these people might have for believing this?
  • Do you know a person who always tries to control everything and is bossy to everyone?
  • What do you long for, or what do you long to do? (a vacation / a promotion / true love // to take a break / to quit your job / to finish school / to see your friends, etc.)
  • Have you ever seen a text that was so similar to another already existing text, it amounted to plagiarism? What about other actions that amounted to crimes such as stealing?
  • Do movies easily trigger deep emotions for you?
  • After you finish class/work, do you ever hang around to talk to your classmates or colleagues?
  • Do you ever make plans, then end up doing something completely different?
  • Are there any emotions you instinctively try to stuff down?
  • Have you ever tried out round up animals?
  • After you buy something, do you tend to hang on to the receipt until the “return” period is over?
  • Can you think of an event where a surprising number of people came? Make a sentence using “a good” plus the number. For example, a good 100 people showed up to the rally.
  • During what month do flowers bloom in your country?
  • How would you prefer to live out the last part of your life?
  • Have you seen many articles touting the benefits of drinking alcohol, or playing video games, or eating red meat, or something else? What do you think of these articles?
  • Are there many lines of thought in your field of work/study?
  • Have you ever heard someone give a very far-fetched excuse for arriving late, or forgetting something important? How would you react if someone gave you a far-fetched excuse for having done something wrong?
  • Do you like reading mystery books or watching detective series that make you feel stumped about what happened until the story explains it?
  • Is there an issue that your friends have very differing points of views on?
  • Do you ever come across objects that you thought you lost when you clean your apartment/house?
  • Do you like it when articles show opposing opinions on an issue? Do you think all articles should take into account opposing points of views, in order to provide a full picture to readers?
  • Have you ever lost something and had no clue where you could have lost it, or how? Describe what happened and use “it was a real head-scratcher.”
  • Are you able to find common ground with any person? Is there a person who you really struggle to find common ground with?
  • What kind of people did your friends strike you as when you first met them?
  • What invention brought about huge changes in your country, or in the world?
  • Do you know anybody who tends to fixate on negative comments that other people make about them?
  • Can you think of a time when someone tried to make a joke or play a prank, but they took it too far?
  • Are there a lot of stray cats in your city? Do you think the government or citizens have a responsibility to care for them?

Feel free to try writing some more sentences, or a text, of your own to practice some more.

Thank you for reading! These ESL notes, links and exercises each take several hours to make, so if you found this useful, the kindest thing you can do is to like the post, leave a comment, or share with anyone who needs it. Have questions about any other words? Leave a comment and I’ll be happy to reply!

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