Coping with negative emotions requires more than positive rephrasing

Coping with negative emotions requires more than positive rephrasing

Describing a situation that elicits negative emotions in more positive terms may provide a new perspective and thus attenuate the negative feelings. However, it is not necessarily the feelings that change with positive rephrasing.

From challenge to problem
On April 18th‘De Taalstaat’ discussed the change in meaning of the Dutch word for challenge, which seems to have shifted towards ‘problem’. I immediately thought of managers persuading their employees to perceive an undesirable situation as a ‘challenge’ instead of a ‘problem’, undoubtedly hoping to bring about a more positive mindset and more creative solutions. Yet rephrasing seems to be easier than rethinking. Many people may have simply adopted the habit of saying ‘challenges’ whenever they are thinking of problems.

I saw something similar in my twins (now almost 10 years old) when they started school. The Dutch word ‘spannend’, which has the dual meaning of ‘making one feel tense’ and ‘exciting’ was apparently used to promote positive thinking there. When my children told their teacher they were afraid, or found something scary, they were corrected: “You’re not afraid, this situation is just a little ‘exciting’ for you.” Did that make them think differently about those situations? Their reaction to a DVD they received from their grandparents would suggest it did not. The text on the back was an invitation to join a group of dinosaurs in an exciting adventure. I read it to them and proposed playing the movie. They both shook their heads with round eyes and asserted that they didn’t like exciting adventures.

My daughter in particular was careful to adopt school rules and phrases. When I came to wake her up on the day of the first birthday party she was to attend, I found her crying in her bed. “I want to go to my friend’s party,” she said, “but it’s just a little too exciting for me!” I sat down at her bedside and we discussed what we could do to make it less ‘exciting’ for her (a strategy that would have worked just as well if she had said ‘scary’). It proved easy to remove the main obstacles and to my relief, her first birthday party became an enjoyable experience. Yet, it had not been positive phrasing (or thinking) that helped her deal with her fear.

Social emotional learning
In recent years, elementary schools have increasingly implemented school-wide social emotional learning programs. Emotion education is typically a fundamental component of these programs. Children are taught to recognize, (accurately) label, and discuss their emotions. The youngest children focus on basic emotions (fear, anger, sadness and joy), while older ones are introduced to more complex and mixed emotions (e.g., jealousy; feeling guilty about being happy). The aim of these lessons is for children to become competent at expressing their needs and meeting those of others. Recognition and adequate labelling of emotions are considered prerequisites.

If positive thinking gets stuck at the level of positive phrases, which then acquire a new, negative meaning, these skills may help to break the cycle.