How to manage negative emotions in a healthy manner.

How to manage negative emotions in a healthy manner.

I have been studying and reading about psychology, spiritual growth, and self-improvement for the past 20 years. I remember when I first started reading this material most of the authors who I were reading suggested to avoid negative emotions such as anger, anxiety, depression, sadness, and guilt. However, I think their analysis and recommendations were incomplete and did me a disservice because they failed to understand the complexity of emotion….

First, they failed to understand that emotions are not black or white. Rather, there is a range of intensity in emotions. For example, a person is not either angry or not angry. Rather, anger could be on a continuum of intensity ranging on a scale of 1 – 10, with 1-3 representing no anger (or perhaps repressed, denied or passive anger) to 4-6 representing mild or controlled anger (assertive anger and expressing your anger in a calm and direct manner to address an injustice or boundary violation and prevent future injustices or future boundary violations) to anger ranging in 7 – 10 range, which would be extreme or aggressive anger, which is usually characterized by anger controlling you to leading to acts of aggression such as yelling, intimidation, threats, insults, and violence and feelings of guilt or regret after the uncontrolled expression of extreme anger.

Thus, anger, and all emotions (grief, anxiety, depression) vary in their range or intensity of the emotion and that range of intensity is what is associated with helpful or unhelpful additional emotions, behavior, outcomes, and responses to the emotion.

This is important to realize because I believe and would argue that extreme levels of anger in the 7-10 range are rarely or never healthy because they are characterized by the emotion controlling our actions or functioning and expressing the emotion or anger in ways that we regret (e.g. yelling at someone or insulting someone).

On the other range of emotion (in the 1 – 3 range), people may be denying or repress their emotion or anger (or sadness or anxiety), which is not healthy either. A person may appear to be calm, but really they are bottling up their emotion or avoiding dealing with an emotion. This is the risk of self-help authors or psychologists or spiritual leaders telling someone to just be positive, think positive thoughts, or avoid negative emotions. Many people would characterize this response as being passive, denial, or repression if you are avoiding the actual emotion. This may have short term benefit of avoiding the experience of feeling a painful emotion or confronting someone who we are angry at. However, it has a long term negative consequence of future outbursts, resentment towards others and self, unresolved emotions, carrying a painful burden, and risks future boundary violations, buried emotional wounds, or outward extreme emotional reactions occurring because the original emotion was never addressed or processed in a healthy manner. It is also potentially inauthentic and dishonest when we avoid ‘negative emotions’ because we are not being true to how we are actually feeling about our self or others.

However, if we can identify our emotion and then identify the intensity of the emotion, then we can manage and express it in a healthy or assertive manner (4-6 range).  For example, simply identifying that you angry can actually help you decrease the intensity of that anger or recognize that you have a right to be angry. For example, identifying the intensity of that emotion can help you know if you are at risk of managing your emotion in a passive or aggressive manner and prompt you to manage it in an assertive manner. Additionally, identifying the intensity of the emotion can help us express and process it in a healthy manner.

Thus, on one end of the emotional intensity spectrum (1-3  range) some self-help gurus, spiritual leaders, and psychologists will tell you to always “be positive” and avoid negative emotions such as anger, sadness, or fear. However, this can lead to repressed emotions, denial, resentment towards others and self, future outbursts, boundaries continuing to be crossed, passive behavior, dishonesty and inauthenticity because we are not being true or honest with ourself and to others. This is especially unhelpful advice (just be positive or avoid being sad) when someone is grieving the death of a loved one, job loss, or relationship break up.

  On the other end of the spectrum (7-10 range), other self-help gurus, spiritual leaders, and psychologists will tell you to always express your emotions and feelings no matter what. This has the risk of leading to uncontrolled expression of emotion and behavior, aggressive acts, emotional outbursts, and feelings of guilt and regret about our uncontrolled expression of behavior, things we say to other people, or acts we may commit when we uncontrollably let lose with emotion.

However, the solution to managing ‘negative emotions’ is more complex and simple than simply avoiding negative emotions or always expressing our emotions however we please. It is to recognize that extreme levels of emotion, either aggression or passive avoidance of experiences of emotion are almost always unhealthy and put you at risk of problematic behaviors. The solution is the ‘middle way’ or the identification of the intensity of emotion and then healthy expression of the emotion. For example, there is nothing wrong with feelings of anger, fear, guilt, or sadness, in and of themselves, if those emotions are expressed in a healthy and controlled a manner.

The following steps are helpful ways to manage negative emotions emotions. They will not eliminate the negative emotion like some authors would advise you to do, rather they will regulate the intensity of the emotion to a healthy level so that you are more in control of your emotions and act more authentically…

1. Identify the emotion

(Some authors actually say if you name the emotion, then you will “tame” the 


2. Identify the intensity of the emotion on a scale ranging from 1 – 10

3. Ask yourself: Why am I feeling this way?

4. Focus on your breath and take some deeper and slower breaths

5. State your emotion in a calm and direct manner to someone who will listen to you in an empathetic, caring, and safe way. For example, simply state out loud: “I am feeling angry or sad or afraid right now.”

There is a poem by Rumi called The Guest House that gives a very profound and practical application of his process when he writes:

The Guest House

This being human is a guest house.

Every morning a new arrival.

A joy, a depression, a meanness,

some momentary awareness comes

as an unexpected visitor.

Welcome and entertain them all!

Even if they are a crowd of sorrows,

who violently sweep your house

empty of its furniture,

still, treat each guest honorably.

He may be clearing you out

for some new delight.

The dark thought, the shame, the malice.

meet them at the door laughing and invite them in.

Be grateful for whatever comes.

because each has been sent

as a guide from beyond.

— Jellaludin Rumi,

  If you do not feel safe stating your emotion to someone then you can write the emotion down in a journal. Writing in a journal after you have calmed yourself down can also help you come up with additional ideas for you would like to respond to your emotion or the situation affecting your emotion.

This will help decrease the intensity of your emotion so that you can act in a more controlled, authentic, and assertive manner.

I have used this process before to help me manage my emotions. One time it was particularly helpful was when I was calling my cable and internet company and got angry at them because my internet was not working and they spent 30 minutes giving me unhelpful advice that didn’t fix my internet. That definitely got me angry, probably around the 7-8 on the scale. In the past, I may have been inclined to be passive and tell myself that I wasn’t angry, when I actually was, or at other times, I would even lash out at the person on the phone and call them a name or two…

But, fortunately, I was able to use this process to decrease the intensity of that emotion and express it in a calm, direct, and healthy manner….


Dr. Matthew Welsh J.D., Ph.D

Founder of Spiritual Media Blog

Dr. Matthew Welsh J.D., Ph.D. is the founder of Spiritual Media Blog. He began his career in Hollywood working for an entertainment agency, the William Morris Agency, and then as a trial lawyer for the Department of Child Services in Indiana. He now works as a full-time life coach helping others with trauma, addictive behaviors, anger, depression, and anxiety.