Navigating Six Core Negative Emotions

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Think about a time you were pushed beyond your limits. Did you stay relational? Did you shut down? Did you beg for mercy? Maybe you handled your upset like a pro. My guess is, this was not one of your better moments.  

All of us have hard times. How well we stay relational when the going gets tough comes down to how well our brain’s emotional control center is trained. This may not sound super-spiritual, but God designed us to learn specific skills to navigate negative emotions. Ideally, we learn to return to joy from distressing emotions by the time we finish our third year of life.[1] Whether we acquire this crucial skill throughout our life comes down to two ingredients. 

The first involves examples. We learn to recover from upset because we have helpful examples. Our friends, family members and role models demonstrate what it looks like to stay relational and recover. We watch and learn. Imagine what it must have been like to watch a very angry, yet relational Jesus heal a man’s shriveled hand after being tested by the Pharisees on the Sabbath![2] The word used to describe Jesus’ reaction to the Pharisees’ hardness of heart tells us this was no minor irritant. His body, face and voice would have conveyed genuine anger.   

Paul tells the Corinthians and the Philippians to imitate him.[3] Imitation happens when we use someone as a model; we follow the person’s behavior and copy their response. Our emotional brain, which is mostly nonverbal, learns by watching people. We internalize what we see for each negative emotion the brain knows. When the specific feeling arises, we put the example into practice.    

These “maturity models” do not simply show us how it looks, they share stories about times they were upset and describe how they handled the situation. Storytellers use play-by-play descriptions detailing how they recovered. Examples and storytelling are ideal ways to train people to thrive during distress.[4]  

The second ingredient involves someone sharing our distress with us. People join our upset. They enter in. They listen. They validate. They comfort. They feel it with us. There is no minimizing or fixing here. People empathize and we feel understood. Scripture describes it this way; rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep.[5]

The first ingredient focuses on observation; we watch and listen. The second focuses on participation. Someone interacts with us. We feel seen and connected. When their brother died, Mary and Martha were eager for Jesus to show up. Jesus wept when He saw the sisters’ grief. Jesus was “deeply moved in his spirit” and “greatly troubled” watching Mary’s weeping.[6] Jesus didn’t stay on the sidelines, observing from a distance. He entered in and felt their distress with them. 

Dr. Marcus Warner and I wrote a book called The 4 Habits of Joy-Filled Marriages. We emphasize joy, a positive emotion, is easy to start but hard to sustain. In order to sustain joy, we rely on relational habits to strengthen our emotional capacity and bolster our ability to recover when things go wrong. In this way, joy keeps our relationships bigger than problems. 

Negative emotions are signals something needs addressed. Sometimes the signal feels too big, so we avoid. Other times, the signal feels too small so we minimize. Marcus and I use the acronym “SAD-SAD” to label the six emotions we are wired to feel. SAD-SAD stands for sadness, anxiety (fear), despair, shame, anger and disgust. Each signal is a signpost telling us to pay attention because our joy is threatened. The emotional brain must learn to manage each signal, otherwise we avoid or stay stuck.  

Scripture is filled with examples where God’s people reached their limit. King David wrote Psalms about his fear and anxiety. In a fit of rage, Moses struck a rock. Jonah’s big feelings landed him in the belly of a fish. Elijah invited God to take his life. Both Job and Jeremiah loathed the day of their birth. There is more, however, a pattern emerges where we are as good as our ability to manage what we feel. Thankfully, God is with us in our distress. We are not alone. 

We can learn to better navigate negative emotions by starting with the easiest emotion first. We use examples, we share stories, we join others in their suffering, and we spread joy in our families and communities. Joy is just one smile away. 


[1] Learning to return to joy is an infant maturity task. Learn more about developmental stages of maturity in the Life Model by Dr. Jim Wilder based on the research of Dr. Allan Schore. 

[2] Mark 3:1-6. The Greek word describing Jesus’ “anger” is orge (Strong’s G3709) which implies intense anger; wrath and indignation. This is the same Greek word Paul uses in Colossians 3:8 that we should “put aside”. 

[3] 1 Corinthians 4:16 and 11:1, Philippians 3:17

[4] Dr. Jim Wilder and I developed THRIVE Training to train people in these important recovery skills at thrivetoday.org.

[5] Romans 12:15

[6] John 11

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