Learning how to control negative emotions is a useful tool for distinguishing feelings from reality. One of the most effective ways to do this is to identify and deploy your two minds.
The Impact Of Negative Emotions
Ever noticed how negative emotions seem to hit harder than positive ones?
Multiple studies comparing the duration and impact of emotions show that negative emotions such as sadness last longer in the brain and distort our outlooks more deeply than positive emotions.
From an evolutionary perspective, we’re primed to give negative emotions more weight. Listening to our own anger, fear and dissatisfaction ensures the survival of our species by inciting us to defend ourselves, measure risk and seek out better environments.
So in a way, negative emotions themselves don’t cause us harm. But our instinct to give them high importance does. We allow them to colour our sense of reality and self, clouding our outlook as we feel them. And even when we try to ignore these emotions, they just turn into dark clouds looming at the back of our minds, waiting to unleash a storm.
Fortunately, there are easy methods to control negative emotions and disassociate your sense of You from the feelings of the moment. These methods require deploying your two minds – one of which we often overlook.
Identifying Your Two Minds
Open any magazine and you’ll find supposed quick-fixes to negative emotions. Hollow life hacks everywhere preach effortless paths to No-Negativity Nirvana:
We prefer a more realistic approach to self-development.
A common first step to learn how to control negative emotions is to try this experiment:
Close your eyes for twenty seconds and try not think about a purple gorilla. We repeat: you should not visualise this purple gorilla:
So, how’d that go?
You totally sucked at that right? That gorilla was popping up everywhere.
But no biggie. Because while you were thinking about the gorilla, something else was also going on: you were observing yourself thinking about it.
That’s your two minds in action.
The Wondering Mind vs The Watching Mind
In reality, we can actually deploy two levels of thinking. This is a common concept in both Buddhism and modern Acceptance-Commitment Therapy.
One level of (compulsory) thinking happens in what we might call the Wondering Mind. This is the one that was actually thinking about the purple gorilla in the experiment. It feels things all the time, every day, in response to stimuli. Those feelings of anger, fear and dissatisfaction? That’s your Wondering Mind doing its thing. It feels like it’s just constantly bouncing around, like a pinball reacting to everything it encounters. It’s a hyper, instinctive little beast that makes you feel like this:
The other level of thinking is what we like to call the Watching Mind. Your Watching Mind is more stable and detached. We all have it, but we don’t all notice it’s there. But if you recognise it, your Watching Mind will observe the thoughts of your Wondering Mind and take note of what the Wondering Mind is thinking and feeling at any given time. It allows you to experience negative emotions a little more like this:
This is actually a really big deal. If you don’t start to acknowledge your Watching Mind, your Wondering Mind just takes over entirely. Now all you have is one mind, and it’s controlled by the most irrational and volatile side of you.
Suddenly, that argument with a friend doesn’t just make you feel anger – angry becomes all you think you are in that moment. You don’t just feel the emotion, you identify with it completely. Sure, somewhere, your positive emotions are still bubbling away happily. But right now, anger’s got you as its hostage.
This is why we need to start acknowledging our Watching Mind. As we saw in the gorilla experiment, our Wondering Mind is out of control. As soon it encounters something bad, it takes you to a dark place. And without your Watching Mind, you are powerless to reign it in.
How To Control Negative Emotions
The point isn’t to eliminate negative emotions. The point is to feel them but not become one with them. This is a freedom we all have. Strong-minded individuals throughout human history have drawn on this principle to control negative emotions even through the toughest ordeals:
Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.
Concretely, among all the bullshit tips on this, the two of us have found two simple methods to deploying our Watching Mind and achieving a bit more of that freedom Frankl wrote about. Of course, we both still fail at times – negative emotions can be incredibly powerful. But if applied consistently, these two tricks bring solid results:
1. Conscious disconnection
This boils down to recognising negative emotions when they arise and redefining your relationship with them. The worst negative emotions are those we’ve neglected, only to see them explode later in volcanic outbursts – as anyone with ongoing relationship troubles or career frustration can attest. Recognising an emotion is a brilliant way to take away its sting and view it through your passive Watching Mind rather than your all-consuming Wondering Mind. Simples.
When a shitty emotion strikes, you can make a big difference to how you experience it by adjusting the language you use to describe it. How you label an emotion is known by psychologists to impact how far that emotion affects you. Are you angry, or just feeling anger? There’s a difference. That small tweak of language leaves you more able to see your anger as a stray bull, charging through the otherwise calm field that is your mind. If you lived exclusively through your Wondering Mind, you’d be riding that crazy bull and getting pretty beat up. Nah, no need – just watch it instead!
Through these two steps (which may seem simple to grasp, but are harder to commit to applying), we think we all come out just a little better equipped to isolate and control negative emotions, without having to eliminate them. In doing so, we’re calling our Watching Mind into action and allowing ourselves to become that bit more focused and peaceful as a result – a key first step for anyone interested in very practical steps to self-development.