The single most significant way that we contribute to our unhappiness is the refusal to simply acknowledge our darker emotions. We find these emotions to be unpleasant and may even consider them to be a weakness. But, our emotions of fear, anger and shame have a practical purpose of increasing our chances of survival. They serve as an early warning that something, or someone is threatening our happiness. When we avoid these emotions, we are also ignoring possible threats to our happiness.

Our feelings come after emotions, once we have had a chance to add our thoughts, memories and experience to the mix. Feelings can keep us motivated with positive, directed action. They can also keep us mired in the more destructive reactions of anxiety, depression, hostility and confusion. Learning how to use the early warning system of your survival emotions can help you keep your feelings positive.

Three common strategies used to avoid survival emotions are pretending, panic and power.

Pretending

With this strategy, we go about our day as if nothing is wrong, avoiding anything that suggests there is a problem. When we spend all of our energy pretending we feel nothing, feelings of anxiety increase.

Panic

With this strategy, we overact and cripple ourselves with destructive thoughts and feelings. We imagine everything is falling apart and react as if the whole world is crashing down around us. When we panic, we become so involved with our feelings, that we become paralyzed with depression and pessimism.

Power

With this strategy, we aggressively try to neutralize the potential threat by “taking control.” More accurately, we try to control everyone and everything around us with aggression, manipulation and intimidation. Highly competitive people are also examples of power strategies. But, the more we try to control the world, the more our feelings turn to frustration and hostility.

The Impact of Avoidance Strategies

These avoidance strategies do not neutralize our fears, anger or shame. Rather, they feed those emotions we try so hard to avoid. The intensity of our emotions increases when we avoid them, and our feelings start to darken as well.

The 90 Second Solution

So, what does work? Before I get to that, let’s look at exactly what we work so hard to avoid. All of that energy and effort to avoid unpleasant emotions is really the avoidance of 90 seconds. One and a half minutes is the longest any dark emotion lasts once you acknowledge it. The length of time it takes to microwave a cup of tea or read this blog post is the amount of time you need to dispense your darker emotions.

All you have to do is simply acknowledge the messages your fear, anger and shame deliver. These emotions exist to protect you; to warn you when you are moving in the wrong direction; to let you know when someone isn’t acting in your best interests. To listen to their warnings, simply say to yourself:

I am afraid because…
I am angry because…
I am embarrassed (or ashamed) because…

And then, tell yourself the truth. Within 90 seconds, your survival emotions will go silent. They have done their job and let you know something is threatening you. Now, it’s up to you to assess the seriousness of the threat and decide on a constructive course of action.

Negative Feelings and Self-Soothing Strategies

The avoidance of survival emotions produces feelings of anxiety, frustration, hostility, bitterness, depression, confusion and so much more. These destructive feelings make it impossible to find the solutions you need to solve your problems. As destructive feelings build, you’ll start to seek out ways to soothe yourself. That’s when you plop in front of the TV with a bag of cookies, or go on a shopping spree you can’t afford or lash out at the people you love the most.

Using Fear, Anger and Shame to Build Happiness

However, when you acknowledge your survival emotions as the early warning system that they are, clarity returns. You are able to see exactly what you need to do, so you can take positive, directed action to solve your problem. Your fear, anger and shame aren’t emotions to ignore. The more you avoid them, the more they will demand your attention. They exist to contribute to your happiness by keeping your life on track. It’s best to hear what they have to say.

You can read more about using your survival emotions to become happier in Chapter Nine of How to Create a Happier Life with the Enneagram.

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Filed under: Happiness

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