Step 1: Assign a name to the particular negative emotion you’re feeling in this moment.
Don’t get too exact or too analytical… Just give it a quick name. A single word: If it’s mostly anger, then call it “Anger.” If it’s “sadness,” then just call it “sadness.” If “guilt”, then go quickly with calling it “guilt.” The point is not to define the emotion according to what others have written about it in dictionaries and elsewhere. The point is to label it for yourself, so that you can easily recognize it when it returns at a later time.
Being able to recognize it as an emotion you’ve dealt with? That gives you a big advantage whenever it returns.
Step 2: Don’t identify with the negative emotion.
Don’t say, for example, “I’m angry.”
You may know what you mean by saying “I’m angry.” Or, “I’m sad.” Or whatever the emotion is. You may “know” that you don’t mean you are that emotion.
But do you really know that, if you say, “I’m angry”? Language has a way of sneaking into the way we think. Which has a way of changing how we feel. You don’t want to feel that you are your negative emotion. Or that it is tattooing you, or staining you.
You’re most certainly not your emotions. Your emotions come and go, like the weather. This is basic reality. They come and they go. So don’t think, “I’m angry.” Or, “I’m hurt.” Think instead something much more accurate, although a little awkward, perhaps: “Sadness has arisen here, for the moment.” Or “Anger has arisen here, for the moment.” Or “Guilty feelings have arisen here, for the moment.” Or whatever the label you have chosen for the negative emotion troubling you.
Why is this strange way of speaking or thinking so important?
Because it helps to prevent you from seeing the negative emotion as somehow YOU or as somehow an integral part of you, or as somehow an indelible stain upon or some kind of damage to you.
The emotion is none of those things. It’s just a state. Nothing more.
Negative emotions are like weather. They come and go. It’s more accurate to say, “A rainstorm is happening here now” than to say “My yard is rainy.”
Step 3: Don’t assign meaning to the negative emotion, or wonder what it means for you, your future, your past. Don’t assign or create any other supposed “meaning”.
Don’t think any sentences about the negative emotion. Don’t try to explain the emotion, or where it came from. Not right now. There’ll be a time and place for that in your life. It’s not while you’re trying to work, or eat your breakfast, or do your grocery shopping. Let the negative emotions wash over you naturally. It’s as if you are a rock, and the negative emotion is a wave. If you make up sentences about it, or try to explain it, or try to fight it, you’ll only whip it up. You’ll only create a story about it that pulls you in, and makes it worse.
Don’t make any sentences about it at all. No statements, no questions.
“Why? Why me?” Or “Oh how could he be so cruel?” Or, “I’ll never be loved again!” Or, “I can never get over this.” These are a few examples of untrue meanings or statements some people create after a breakup . They take the temporary, natural pain that you feel, and they amp it up. And they keep it stirred up. And they’re completely imaginary. They don’t exist outside of your head.
So avoid making any sentence except “Anger [or whatever the negative emotion] has arisen here, for the moment.”
Step 4: Focus on something concrete and present in your immediate environment.
Focus on anything at all, even if the object seems pointless. Especially if it seems pointless.
Focus on a houseplant. Or the shoes of the person who is sitting across from you on the subway. Focus on a charging cord, a key, anything at all.
Make sure the subject of your focus is an object, a simple object which is just being what it is — not art, not people, not needs, not work, not social media, not a book. The point of this exercise is to pull you into the concrete here and now. Don’t spend time choosing. Literally any object will do.
You could even just focus on how your breath feels in your nose. This is a classic choice, and recommended, because it’s always there.
Focus on the object for a minute or so. There’s no need to set a timer.
Notice every detail you can about it. When your focus wanders, just notice and then gently, without judging yourself, direct your attention back to the object.
Take your breath for example. We tend to think our breath is just our breath. Nothing interesting there. But when you really focus on it, and notice how it feels, you notice it’s different and interesting at all times. It’s more in one nostril than the other. It’s cooler or warmer in your nose as it goes in and out. It feels different at different points in your lungs, your nose, and everywhere in between. It’s like a candle flame in that way. A candle flame may seem as if it will be utterly the same at all times. But it isn’t. It’s always a little different, and can be fascinating, even if it’s not entertaining. And that is the point. Entertainment takes us away from the here and now, from our bodies, ourselves. Focus on the breath (or the charging cord, or the coffee cup) keeps us grounded in the real world, in reality.
That has another benefit: Much of our suffering, especially around breakups or divorce, takes place in our imaginations. We remember a painful fight. Or we fear what may happen in the future. Get into your present here and now by focusing on your breath or on some ordinary “boring” object right in front of you.
Step 5: Twenty reps of Deep Slow Stealthy Breathing.
When you’ve finished a minute or so of focusing on that houseplant or charging cable or person’s shoes in the subway car, or on your own breath, then do 20 deep, slow, breaths in and out. Do it unobtrusively, calmly, even stealthily. You may in a business meeting. You may be in class. You may be at dinner with your family. No one will notice.
What Happens When You Use the Five Steps
You feel calmer. You feel less stressed. You feel far less or none of the negative emotion you started with.
Your negative emotions will come back, of course.
But now you know how to get the better of them. Negative emotions affect you less and less intensely. Negative emotions leave you more and more quickly.
Until one day soon (it can even happen within a few days), you feel surprised by joy. You wonder what ever happened to those negative emotions.
You notice the negative emotions of your breakup or divorce won’t be part of your experience any more.
You wonder what crazy thoughts you were thinking in order to feel that that relationship, or that “love”, or “marriage”, was something you needed for your happiness.
Keep This Recipe
Negative emotions can arise almost anywhere.
So you need a recipe to follow which can be used anywhere too.
You can use The Five Steps anywhere, any time, to see negative emotions for what they are — or rather, are not.
You’ll see them pass over you and away from you naturally.
Try the five steps for a few days. Try them with every onset of negative emotion.
And after those few days, see how you feel.
Don’t be surprised if you feel much better, calmer, and more in control. Don’t be surprised if you bounce back almost completely pretty fast.
And when you’re feeling better, will you stop taking the steps, and assume their benefits will continue? Will you assume you’ve got things covered now, and can stop?
Make sure not to stop.
Like yoga, the benefits of these practices continue only if the exercises are continued regularly.