The Key to Emotional Health Is . . .


It’s a fact; bad things happen to good people. Regardless of how well we attempt to manage our lives, no one escapes unscathed when it comes to the negative side of life.

The truth is that we all experience negative emotional events at some point in our lives, whether they be in the forms of failure, disappointment, or heartbreak. Unfortunately, knowing that it happens to everyone doesn’t make it any easier to deal with once it is staring us in the face.

Although many people try, it’s not realistic to expect that we could somehow fortify ourselves to the extent of never experiencing negative emotions. In fact, it would be abnormal if we didn’t experience them, and it’s extremely unhealthy to suppress them. However, although we can’t eliminate these experiences, learning to minimize the emotional impact of negative situations is a very realistic goal.

When negative events occur, we all have different ways of expressing the accompanying emotions. However, when it comes to the intensity and duration of these feelings, research tells us that it has more to do with the way we perceive these events than with the events themselves. Therefore, one of the most important skills to develop is the ability to maintain a realistic perspective.

Perspective is very important when it comes to managing emotions. Think about the way a magnifying glass works; it enlarges the object of study. In addition to making the object larger, it also distorts its relative proportions, as it does with eye on the face of our friend in the photo above.

When it comes to the negative events in our lives, many of us have a tendency to do something similar; we magnify a negative situation to where it becomes larger than it needs to be, and our perception of its impact becomes disproportionate to the other areas of our lives. Therefore, managing the negative impact begins with managing our perspective.

How can we accomplish this?

There are 5 key things to remember which can help us to maintain a realistic perspective:

  1. Our lives evolve as a collective of experiences, and ONE experience does not define its entirety. Over the course of a lifetime, each experience is like a raindrop into a sea of experiences. Therefore, we shouldn’t give a single negative event more weight than is truly warranted.
  2. Consider the concept of impermanence; nothing is fixed or permanent. The same is true regarding negative situations. Regardless of how bad it may seem, we must maintain the understanding that what we are feeling is temporary, and that the discomfort won’t last forever. Keep in mind the saying, “this too shall pass.”
  3. Recognize the difference between discomfort and catastrophe.  When we assign overly extreme values to normal emotions (i.e., catastrophize), it becomes more difficult to cope with the negative situation. It is healthy to acknowledge when we are upset (sad, angry, frustrated, etc.) about a situation. However, telling ourselves (and others) that we are “devastated” would be a catastrophization . In other words, we should avoid experiencing a situation as unbearable or impossible when it is just uncomfortable.
  4. Avoid making broad, sweeping conclusions based on a single incident or a single piece of evidence. Experiencing a failure does not mean we ARE a failure, nor does it mean that we will continue to fail. Additionally, just because one situation has gone awry, there is no reason to generalize that everything else is bad (e.g., “My girlfriend left me . . . my entire life sucks.”).
  5. Most of us experience more good than bad in our lives. Therefore, when facing failures and disappointments, we should remind ourselves of our competencies and previous accomplishments. We should learn to acknowledge the good things in our lives, so that we don’t place a disproportionate focus on the bad.

When we maintain perspective during negative situations, we increase our ability to manage the accompanying thoughts and feelings. We can’t anesthetize ourselves from feeling normal emotions. However, using the key concepts above, we can better manage the way we process them, which can minimize the negative emotional impact. Maintaining a proper perspective allows us to see these events as they really are – through a realistic lens, without the distortions of a magnifying glass.

Personal Reflections:
  • How often do you magnify negative situations in your life?
  • How would the suggestions above help you to handle negative situations differently?

Beck, A. T., &  Alford, B. A. (2009). Depression: Causes and treatment (2nd ed.). Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press.

*Image: alenavlad

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