UC Berkeley's Empathy and Emotional Intelligence Class Taught Me How to Better Deal With Negative Emotions
The world we woke up in today is not the same as the world we were living in just a few months ago. Some have described the coronavirus pandemic as the weirdest, sh*ttiest rollercoaster ride of all time. And to be honest, that’s fair enough. Scientists have researched extensively how humans deal with extreme isolation, or mass disasters, or ongoing stress-inducing situations. But dealing with them all at once? Nobody knows what kind of emotional cocktail this quarantine is brewing.
Here in Spain, we’re into our second month of strict quarantine, and to go along with all the overwhelming emotions, I just happen to be studying Empathy and Emotional Intelligence at Work online at the University of California, Berkeley. I’m in good hands, too. The course – which you can audit for free, or pay $199 if you’d like a verified certificate – was created by two scientists: Dr. Dacher Keltner, a professor of psychology from UC Berkeley and Stanford University (and the expert consultant for Pixar’s Inside Out), and Dr. Emiliana Simon-Thomas, a neuroscientist also from Berkeley and Stanford, who actually taught the Dali Lama about the “Science of Happiness.”
This is what they have to say about dealing with negative emotions.
Give Your Emotions a Seat at the Table
Suppressing negative emotions isn’t healthy. But neither is letting them run wild and control you. The professors recommend a technique by Dr. Tchiki Davis described as mindful acceptance (or giving your emotions a seat at the table).
Here’s what you do: have a think about all the things you can and can’t control about the global pandemic. Even though it might sound like the last thing you want to do, focus on the things you can’t control. The scary things. Yes, it might bring some negative emotions to the surface, but don’t worry – it’s normal to have negative emotions (especially about COVID-19). The key is to put your feelings into words, like: “I’m feeling anxious because of all the uncertainty, but that’s OK, I’m allowed to feel anxious”.
Mindfully accepting your emotions, even the negative ones, is a huge step in preventing negative feelings from overwhelming you. When I did this, I felt like I was cutting off some of the power supply to those difficult feelings, which made them a little easier to manage. It feels weird at first. According to the experts though, with practice, mindful acceptance can help you become the boss of negative emotions, and not the other way around.
Become a Fly on the Wall
So, after weeks of this global pandemic, you’ve got social distancing mastered. Now it’s time to try self distancing, also known as decentring, or taking a step back when your emotions get too negative. In this second tip, Dr. Keltner again recommended verbalizing your feelings, but this time from a third-person point of view – like you’re a fly on the wall inside your own home.
In the case of the coronavirus quarantine, it could be something like: “She’s feeling overwhelmed by all the bad news updates” or “He’s scared the supermarkets will run out of toilet paper.” Don’t worry if you feel a little silly at first. I know I did, but at least in quarantine your neighbors and friends are too far away to hear you.
The important thing is to be careful not to use the words “I” or “me.” It might seem like such a small difference, but putting that little bit of distance between you and your feelings can apparently lead to lower negative emotions, faster recovery, and greater insight into your feelings. That’s because according to their research, this small linguistic shift creates a change in thinking, which helps you get more abstract. It stops you from focusing on how bad you’re feeling and lets you approach things more constructively, which really makes them much easier to manage. When you’re already trying to juggle working from home, homeschooling your flock, and trying not fall to pieces, a constructive approach can make things so much easier.
Change Your Perspective
While you’re in lockdown, you may not be able to change your view, but according to the “Science of Happiness” experts, changing your perspective on things can help you deal with the negative emotions you might be experiencing. That means looking for positives in negatives, and finding potential for learning or personal growth. Of course, in the middle of a global pandemic that may seem like a ridiculous task, but I promise there’s always a way.
This isn’t about the obvious reduction of pollution in China or how the canals in Venice, Italy, have magically cleared up. With so many lives being horrifically impacted by coronavirus, it would be a cheap win in comparison. It’s more about reappraising your own situation. The things you have control over. This is an exercise in realizing there are positives in your day right now, and that they deserve your attention, too.
For example, having a community is one of the best proven ways to deal with quarantine. If you have neighbors, friends, family, or that one quirky roommate to talk to, that’s a huge positive you may have been taking for granted. Try to put more energy into that instead of pouring over all the latest headlines and horror stories. Have you got a newfound respect for frontline workers like nurses, doctors, cleaners, and supermarket employees? Great. It turns out being in quarantine has (ironically) helped you expand your horizons and grow. Take time to focus more on that kind of positivity to help balance out the negative emotions you may be feeling.
Don’t Be Flippant
It’s difficult to write this without seeming flippant in the face of such a devastating global crisis. The Empathy and Emotional Intelligence course from the UC Berkeley was created long before coronavirus existed. Of course thinking positively won’t stop the pandemic. It won’t bring back the people we’ve lost, either. From what I’ve learned about emotional intelligence from Drs. Keltner and Simon-Thomas, though, these three steps of reframing your experience, verbalizing feelings in the third person, and giving yourself permission to feel negative emotions, can shift your internal narrative to something more productive. Even in a situation like this.
We may not have the vaccine to control this virus yet, but we do have scientifically-backed ways to control how we experience this sh*tty rollercoaster while we’re on it. It may take time to make it a habit, but at least time is one thing we all have plenty of right now.