During a recent coaching session, I was working with a client who is in transition with her work life and some of her relationships. After she described an emotionally painful experience, I asked how she typically deals with distressing emotions. Because she did not have a specific strategy, I suggested a 4-step process–a process we then used to develop a personal ritual for her to utilize when she encounters strong negative feelings. In a nutshell, the four steps are:
- Identify/acknowledge/recognize the emotional experience
- Validate the emotional experience
- Comfort/nurture yourself
- Decide how to respond
Over the following weeks, my client used her customized ritual and provided me with feedback. With practice, she found herself responding more carefully and thoughtfully to situations she otherwise would have reacted to with impulsive anger or shame. With her permission, I share her summary of and reflections on the process. Should you decide to develop your own 4-step process, I encourage you to create it during a time when you are not clouded by negative emotions.
Here’s what my client provided:
“When I find myself in the throes of a strong negative emotion…what is a healthy way to process the feeling?
- I stop and recognize the experience.
- When the negative emotion arises…I deliberately pause for a moment. I breathe and note what is happening emotionally and physically.
- The conscious thought, ‘I am having this experience of feeling [sad/angry/frustrated],’ launches my ritual.
- I perform a brief physical action that marks the moment of observation.
I can put my hand on my heart, close my eyes, repeat a special mantra, count to ten, or pray.
- When I do this, I am clearing the way for a moment of inner work. I am seeking clarity of thought.
- I give myself some credit and validate my feeling(s).
- Rather than ‘stuffing down’ or ignoring a negative feeling, I use the ritual to recognize that my first emotion is legitimate. There are good reasons for me to feel the way I feel. Negative feelings happen. They are part of the human experience and I’m human.
- I recognize that my feeling, while valid, is not a permanent fact and that what I do with it is up to me. Endless rumination and suffering are optional. (For me, there is tremendous relief in: (1) accepting that the first, raw emotion cannot be controlled, and (2) following up by accepting responsibility for what occurs afterwards.)
- I comfort myself.
- I start with some nurturing self-talk. (This was so awkward for me! I had no idea how to comfort myself during a strong negative emotion…until Peg had me envision comforting someone else. She asked me to bring to mind a child that I love deeply. I imagined one of my 4-year-old nephews sitting on my lap. Suddenly, this step seemed so clearly useful and direct. And now, I more or less say to myself what I would say to my nephews.)
- I engage in a soothing activity or behavior, such as playing comforting music, doing something nice for myself, or seeking comfort from a loved one. I consider some of Peg’s suggestions: ‘Give yourself a hug, get a massage, make a cup of tea, or do whatever is a treat for you.’
- I decide on the next, right, indicated action.
- Once I feel I have established some clarity and balance, I ask myself, ‘What, if anything, should I do about this? Should I address this immediately and directly? If so, then how?’
- I ask myself how I can use this experience to respond skillfully. If everything and everyone is a teacher, what can I learn? What can I do differently this time?
- Very often, I find the answer is ‘say and do nothing right now.’
This ritual is helping me to use my emotional responses as checkpoints – when strong feelings arise, I stop to scrutinize my inner-monologue. How am I talking to myself? How am I reacting to that self-talk? A strong negative feeling can be an opportunity to change the thinking that follows.
The 4-step ritual gives me clarity and it helps me determine if my next words will be necessary, true, and kind. It helps me decide whether I want to utter the words at all. Realizing my own part and my own conditioning empowers me to respond with calm. It’s a ritual I value.”
If you find yourself being held back by or struggling with negative emotions, consider developing your own four-step ritual. May you find it as beneficial as this client did.