It’s a fact: bad things happen to the best of us. No matter how well we try to manage our lives, no one escapes the negative side of life. We all experience negative emotional events, whether they be failure, disappointment, or heartbreak. But just because we know it happens to everyone, it doesn’t make it any easier to deal with when it happens to us.
Though we may try, it’s not realistic to expect that we could keep ourselves from ever experiencing negative emotions. In fact, it would be abnormal if we didn’t experience them. And suppressing them is extremely unhealthy. Although we can’t eliminate these experiences, we can learn how to minimize their emotional impact.
When we experience negative events, we all have different ways of expressing the accompanying emotions. Regarding the intensity and duration of these emotions, research tells us 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 for managing emotions. Think about the way a magnifying glass works; it enlarges the object of study. Besides making the object larger, it also distorts its relative proportions.
As we process negative events, many of us have a tendency to do something similar. We magnify the 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 five key concepts to remember for managing our perspective:
- Our lives comprise a collection of experiences. A SINGLE experience cannot define it. Over the course of a lifetime, a single experience is like a raindrop in a sea of experiences. Therefore, we shouldn’t give a single event more weight than is truly warranted.
- Consider the concept of impermanence. In the natural world, nothing is permanent. This includes negative situations. Regardless of how bad it may seem, we must remind ourselves that what we are feeling is temporary and the discomfort won’t last forever. Embrace the old saying, “This too shall pass.”
- Acknowledge the difference between discomfort and catastrophe. When we assign overly extreme labels 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—about a situation. However, telling ourselves (and others) that we are “devastated” would be a catastrophization. We should avoid labeling a situation as “unbearable” or “impossible” when it is just uncomfortable.
- Avoid making 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 we will continue to fail. And just because a single 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.”).
- Most of us experience more good than bad in our lives. Therefore, when we experience 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 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 magnification.
Image: Marten Newhall
Beck, A. T., & Alford, B. A. (2009). Depression: Causes and treatment (2nd ed.). Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press.