4 Steps for Using Negative Emotions to Transform You

Transformation of Lime Butterfly ( papilio demoleus ) with pupa and caterpillar

“There is transformative power in our negative emotions. The key is to create a safe, welcoming space to lean in and hear their lessons.”
Dr. Andrea Dinardo

I’ve done a lot of therapy. A lot of counseling. A lot of reading. And a lot suffering in my emotions. But I have never really experienced this “transformative power” Dr. Dinardo talks about.

Until now.

And as I continue my therapy and my counseling and my reading and my (occasional) suffering of emotions now, I am proof that there is a transforming power that comes from listening to our emotions and working through them.

PROBLEM: How do we use our negative emotions to transform us?

But before I could experience this ongoing alchemizing process of my soul, I had to shift the way I thought about negative emotions.

My challenge to you is that you shift your thinking as well.

Many of us grew up believing negative emotions were bad. They are “negative” right? Uncomfortable, shameful, wrong, inappropriate, and more.

But did you know that negative emotions are not all those terrible things?

They are a gift to you and to me for a very specific reason: to alert us when we are fueling an unhealthy belief within.

For example,
if you’re worried about how you will look when you go out for the evening,
and your negative self-talk begins
about your body shape and size,
and your imperfect, frizzy hair,
and your freckle-speckled face,
you’re quickly slipping into a bit of anxiety before you go out.
And while you’re out,
you’re so worried about what people will think
of how you look,
and if they’re thinking your body’s not in perfect proportions,
and if they’re inwardly laughing at your hair,
and if they notice the blemishes and patches,
that you’re feeling insecure
and not able to
be yourself
and have a good time.

If you didn’t have your anxiety, you would have had a great evening out. Your anxiety is to blame, right?


Your anxiety is there to reveal the real villain: an unhealthy belief that you must look “perfect” in order for people to accept you and want to be with you.

Once that unhealthy belief is discovered, addressed, and let go of, your anxiety doesn’t need to hang around any more! (Unless it’s notifying you of another unhealthy belief.)

Shedding our unhealthy beliefs is the transformative power of our negative emotions.

Isn’t that amazing!?

Because of this, I like to think of my emotions as sidekicks coming to my aid to alert me when there is a villain around. I do not want those parasitic, villainous, unhealthy beliefs sucking my life away any longer! I appreciate the notice (even if it’s uncomfortable for a time) that there is something I can get rid of to make my life’s existence better.

Can you see your negative emotions this way too?

It will take a little practice, but you can do it! It’s totally possible–and necessary in order transform yourself as you work through your emotions.

So once you’ve shifted your thinking about negative emotions, how do you actually work through them?

The following steps might seem easy, and they are quite simple, but working through them is hard, emotional labor! Leaning in to your negative emotions means going “there” and maybe digging deeper into the wound until you understand exactly what you are feeling and what you need to do.

Working through emotions is not for the faint of heart.

But you can do it. I know you can. You were born with this ability. And you will see amazing results and your life will change for the better.

Let’s start now!

The four steps to working through your emotions are

1) Feel,
2) Name,
3) Discern, and
4) Act.

That’s it!

Let’s look at it in more detail.

First, we have to feel our emotions. Our body has an amazing way of bringing our attention to our emotions. But sometimes there is so much going on outside of us that we are not aware of what’s going on inside us. The outer noise can be incredibly distracting—and enticing when we start to feel uncomfortable. But don’t ignore that discomfort! That is a signal to us that there is something we need to be aware of. Whether that discomfort is sweaty palms, a flush in the cheeks, a wrench in our gut, or a lump in our throat, those are all signs to us that we have an emotion arriving and we need to pay attention. For more on practicing how to recognize your body’s emotion cues, read “Feeling the Feelings” that gives suggestions on how to get more in tune with your body.

Second, after we have listened to our body and are aware that an emotion is present, we have to name it. What is it that you are actually feeling? Disappointment? Resentment? Worry? Try to put a word to it. “Over thinking” is not an emotion. “He made me do it” is not an emotion either. Emotions are one word. Stressed. Down. Grumpy. You can use this handy-but-ugly list of emotions, and once you’ve found a word that describes how you feel, identify its parent emotion. A parent emotion is the main category of emotion that the emotional offspring falls under. If you know the parent emotion, it will greatly simplify your emotion work.

Now that you have felt your emotion and have named it, you are at the third step which is to discern your emotion’s message. Once again, every emotion that comes to you is bringing you a message. If you’re feeling the parent emotion of fear, then there is some action that you need to take—a choice needs to be made. And now is the time to do it! If the parent emotion is sadness, then it’s telling you there is something you need to let go of—maybe a physical thing, but most often a thought or expectation in your mind that you’re holding on to. If the parent emotion is anger, then you have a boundary that has been violated, and it will be detrimental for you continue with the boundary broken.

What’s truly incredible is that your emotion’s message is totally individual to you and appropriate to the situation you are in. There is no glossary or index or encyclopedia for you to reference to in discerning what the specific message is. You get to discover that on your own!

And it’s totally possible.

There are many articles on this website describing how to discern your emotions’ instruction to you. Most of them include step-by-step directions to do this. “How to Reduce Your Anxiety” guides you on how to work through anxiety. “Shifting from Anger Management to Anger Assistance” is a great post about how to do this with your anger. I’ll soon post steps when dealing with sadness.

Finally, the fourth step in successfully working through your emotions is to act on the message you received! If you don’t act, the emotion will stay with you and continue to make you uncomfortable, reminding you that there is something you need to do. Once you take action, your emotion’s job is done, and it will leave! As it goes, you are filled with a sense of accomplishment, power, and strength for successfully working through your emotion. It’s amazing!

SOLUTION: Successfully work through your emotions by Feeling, Naming, Discerning, and Acting can transform and free your life.

Your emotions are there to help you progress and move forward. They are not the villains in your life. They are the sidekicks coming to your aid. Try the steps out. Let me know if you get stuck or if you have questions.

You can do it!

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