How Negative Feelings Help You Change Your Habits

The other day my son and I were getting ready to go to the pool to swim. My son, two and half years old, is learning how to dress and undress himself. He was attempting to take off his socks. He got extremely frustrated, irritated and annoyed because he couldn’t figure it out. Why am I telling you about my son’s experience with learning how to take his socks off? And what does it have to do with negative feelings and habit change? 

Creating a new habit is like learning how to take your socks off

The process of changing an unhealthy habit is like the process of learning how to take off your socks. In both situations you experience a flood of negative emotions when things don’t work out the way you thought or wanted them to.

Habit change, whether you are trying to lose weight or trying to quit smoking is often a difficult experience. What makes it difficult is the fact that you will face slip ups and setbacks. Those failures can trigger negative emotions of frustration, upset, anger, sadness, irritation, annoyance and hopelessness. 

It’s okay to experience negative feelings

Not only is it okay for you to experience those negative feelings, it is beneficial for you!

Your unwillingness to accept and take on the inevitable failures that happen during the process of habit change will turn your pain into suffering. That suffering, according to psychologist Robert Biswas-Diener and Todd Kashdan only happens when we turn our back on emotional and physical discomfort. 

Your goal, when you experience those negative emotions should never be to avoid them in the first place, your goal, should be to take the negative out of those emotions and have the willingness to accept and face them. I believe that as Dr. Albert Ellis (the founder of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy) described, most of our problems arise because of our unwillingness to approach the distressing thoughts or feelings we experience. 

Psychologists Jonathan Adler and Hal Hershfield studied what makes psychotherapy successful. To their surprise, they found that what made psychotherapy successful wasn’t that therapy got rid of peoples’ problems, what made it successful was that people became comfortable with experiencing both negative and positive emotions in any given area of their life1.

This is what you must learn to do. You must develop the willingness to be comfortable with experiencing the negative and positive emotions that will arise during the process of habit change.

Dr. Albert Ellis discussed three dysfunctional beliefs that increase distress and destructive behavior. One of those is the belief that “life must be easy, without discomfort or inconvenience”. Life is not easy, neither is habit change. The process of changing habits might seem easy but the reality is that habit change is difficult; it takes effort and it takes time and you will face uncomfortable situations that cause you to experience negative emotions. 

How exactly do your negative feelings help you change your habits?

Your negative emotions, whether you like it or not, can be motivating. You know that this is true. You’ve seen it in professional sports, when the coach gets angry at the way his players are performing; this anger serves as the perfect solution that turns things around. 

Does this mean that getting angry with yourself is a strategy to changing your habits? Maybe, maybe not but the point is that negative emotions like frustration and anger can at times be useful in pushing you over the edge in which continuing with the process of changing your habits becomes a must for you. 

Do you ever ask yourself the following: What purpose do my negative feelings serve? 

Your emotions are informational signals that alert you about your progress and actions, they are like a “GPS monitor…giving you metaphorical information about your location, the terrain in front of you and behind you and your rate of progress” The Upside To Your Dark Side. 

Let’s say you are trying to lose weight, in the beginning things seem to be going well. You have lost a few pounds since you started the journey but a few weeks in and you start to plateau, and it becomes more and more difficult for you to lose weight. You start to get angry, frustrated, annoyed and you feel like giving up on this whole idea of weight loss and your goal

But do you ever stop to ask yourself why these negative feelings have arisen? And more importantly what course of action do these negative feelings point me to? 

Perhaps these negative emotions are signaling to you, that it’s time to do things differently; maybe it’s time to try a different approach to nutrition and exercise or maybe it’s time to get a mentor, or a coach to support you on the journey of weight loss. 

Whatever the case might be, it’s helpful to understand that your negative emotions serve a purpose! Moreover, in the same way that you are capable of withstanding physical discomfort, you are also capable of withstanding psychological discomfort. In short, you are more capable of handling negative emotions than you give yourself credit for. 

If you choose to numb your negative feelings that come up during the process of habit change, you would also have chosen to numb the positive feelings. 

Image credit: Photo by Tengyart on Unsplash

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