Changing Negative Emotions

 Written By: Dewey Wilson, Ph.D.


So, what do you think? Do emotions dictate actions, or do actions determine emotions? For a lot of people, this is like trying to figure out which came first—the chicken or the egg. After all, it seems logical for a person who feels anxious or afraid to remove themselves from the situation or find a way to face their emotions head on. However, most theorists and researchers suggest that flight or fight reactions are the responses to felt emotions, which themselves are the result of some previous physiological event or action.

Now before you short circuit any brain cells, think of it this way. Suppose it’s your first day on a new job and your boss asks you to lead the next department meeting. As a result, you notice your heart begins to race, you start sweating and then you realize you’re anxious or nervous. Later that evening, you walk through the door at home only to find your spouse dressed up and ready to go out for dinner. You forgot it was your anniversary. Once again, your heart begins to race, you start sweating and you realize you’re embarrassed and afraid you have disappointed your spouse. While it was for different reasons, the feelings of nervousness and anxiety were the response to the events or actions.

But does it really matter whether emotions drive actions or actions drive emotions? The answer is yes, especially when it comes to marriage. Constantly allowing emotions to drive your actions will ultimately disappoint you, simply because the messages associated with negative emotions can’t always be trusted. For example, you might believe your spouse’s lack of communication always makes you angry; therefore, in your mind, lashing out at them is the only way they will ever change their behavior towards you. But consider this: your spouse cannot make you angry. Their actions may leave you feeling hurt, but becoming angry is your decision. It’s what you do with your anger that determines the success or the trial.

The best way to change a negative emotion is to change the behavior associated with the emotion. The next time you experience some type of negative emotion, you might consider the following:

1. Acknowledge what just happened hurt your feelings, but remember that yelling or passive aggressive behavior has not produced good results in the past.
2. Instead of jumping to conclusions, assume positive intentions. Could their behavior be attributed to something else?
3. Be realistic in the moment. Ask yourself, “What’s the worst thing that could happen, and what can I do to help us get through this together?" 
4. Be more empathetic. Instead of automatically focusing on how you feel, try to understand your spouse’s position. Many times, it’s not the circumstance but the lenses you use to look at the circumstance that cause the problem.

Obviously, changing your behavior in the midst of adversity is always difficult. However, it is possible with God’s help. The apostle Paul reminds us in 2 Corinthians 12:9 that God’s strength is made perfect in our weakness. We’re also told in Luke 12:12 that we can trust God’s Spirit to give us the very words we ought to say the moment we need them.

So, the next time your negative emotions try to persuade you to respond negatively, focus on replacing your negative responses with more positive actions. Eventually, the positive emotions will follow. 

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