Are negative emotions derailing your chances of success? Here’s how to deal with them…

I believe that everyone deserves access to the knowledge, tools and support that will help them to understand themselves better, so that they can fulfil their potential. Ultimately that means living a happier and more fulfilled life. One of the fundamental elements of this is being able to understand and respond more effectively to negative emotions – there is no doubt that they can trip us up on our way to success. We all have negative emotions, but that doesn’t have to mean we have stressful or distressing lives, or that they need to get in the way of our success. it’s what we do with them that matters. On this week’s podcast I speak to Dr Anna Colton about just this – distress tolerance – the ability to withstand pressure or remain calm in spite of stress. Let me explain using an example…

If you’re one of the many travellers who has experienced cancelled flights back to the UK this week you will have inevitably felt stressed and probably distressed as a result. How much distress however depends on several factors both external and internal. For example, if your child has an exam that it’s critical to get back for, you will probably experience more distress than say a retired person with no particular plans. The exam and delay are external factors which are out of your control. But imagine there are two parents of the same child with the exam next week. Both are experiencing the same situation, and both have the same concerns about getting home. Yet one parent seems hardly ruffled at all, whereas the other is shouting and screaming at everyone. The difference in response comes down to internal factors. So, what’s the point?

We all perceive situations differently and we also perceive our own emotions to those situations differently. So even if the external factors are exactly the same for all of the passengers. 

  • some passengers will be calm and composed – they don’t perceive the situation as stressful. 
  • some will perceive the situation as stressful and therefore experience distress but tolerate the emotions that come along with that. They are also relatively calm, but for them it’s in spite of how they perceive the situation
  • some will overtly display a rainbow of negative emotions to anyone within earshot. 

What does knowing yourself better have to do with this and how does this relate to distress tolerance?Well for the sake of this article we’re interested in the middle group – the people who experience the situation as stressful, have the negative emotions but remain calm. They have a better level of distress tolerance and are far more likely to live a happier and healthier life. Sounds good right? So, what can you do to improve your distress tolerance? 

There’s a lot to this and it’s something worth reading up more on (and of course listening to the podcast), but in summary:

  • We all (even the calm dude) have a quick emotional response to stressful situations in our heads. You can’t necessarily control that (although you can work on how you perceive situations, I’ll come back to that in another blog), but you can….
  • Be aware of or ask someone you trust to make you aware of when you’re beginning to look like you’re becoming hooked by stress. One leader I work with asks his team to tell him when starts looking agitated, which has been a really effective way for him to raise his awareness and as a result his response…. 
  • Being aware brings your response into your conscious awareness, you then have a choice
    • You can act on the emotion, so if you’re angry that may mean going and shouting at someone, but that generally isn’t very helpful. 
    • You can fight that emotion, but a huge body of research shows that that actually makes it worse, it exacerbates the negative emotion. A bit like the response you may expect from shouting at someone but instead of being an argument, it’s a battle in your own head. 
    • You can ignore the emotion, but research shows that this also makes things worse, it will rear its head at some point and generally in a way that’s out of our control. 
    • Or you can acknowledge and accept the emotionThis is the most helpful response by far BUT it’s not easy. There is however a relatively easy first step which I’ll share in a moment. 

We often hear of the ability to accept an emotion as surfing a wave (I call it emotion surfing). If you’ve ever tried to stand up to a big wave as it crashes to the shore, you’ll know that it can knock you off your feet. You can’t fight the force of the ocean and you can’t fight the force of your response to threat, but you can learn to surf the wave. 

The relatively easy first step is becoming aware of your emotions or asking someone else to help you notice. Then name the negative emotion (e.g. enraged, fuming, desperate). It sounds a bit too simple, but studies have shown that it has a surprisingly significant and helpful effect on your brain. Think of it like processing the emotion. 

There are a whole range of other strategies and I’ll share some this week. It’s key to remain curious and examine your response lightly, analysis will lead to paralysis. Empower people you trust to help you. Try out the tools and see which work for you and remember to keep practicing. As P.J. Palmer says

“What a long time it can take to become the person one has always been.” But I would add, it’s well worth the effort the reward being more success yes, but ultimately the reward is living a happier and more fulfilled life. 

For more tools go to my book Defining You (amazon links below – also available in national bookstores):





Photo: Ric Rodrigues Pexels

Leave a Reply