People sometimes have the impression that the primary goal of therapy is to eliminate negative emotions or distress. Although there is often a focus on symptom reduction early in therapy, we generally have much broader goals. Likewise, people sometimes navigate daily life in an effort to minimize discomfort or distress. This is fairly reasonable as we are all motivated to avoid pain. Nevertheless, it can lead us down a path of avoidance and hypervigilance or into a pattern of negative thinking and despair if we are not paying attention.
In contrast to avoiding or eliminating (not possible) negative emotion, we can focus on accumulating positive emotion. In fact, this can be a useful coping skill to learn for building resilience. In reality, unpleasant things, people, and emotions are inevitable and often out of our control. Yet, if we focus some attention and effort on ways of collecting positive emotional experiences, we are likely to be more resilient in the face of adversity.
The primary challenge to accumulating positive emotion is the all-to-common focus on avoiding negative emotions. It is even possible to overlook and thereby neglect positive emotions when they do occur. Therefore, the first step to accumulating positive emotions is to notice when you are experiences them. Next, allow yourself time to experience and fully acknowledge your positive emotions. You might consider taking a pause, closing your eyes, or speaking softly to yourself using affirmative statements about your emotions. You might imagine taking the positive emotion and related experience and putting it into a backpack to carry with you throughout the day.
It is all too common to rush past our positive emotions and experiences as we look to the next negative thing to avoid. In this sense, we are unable to accumulate much beyond a fleeting glimpse of positive emotion. A third helpful tip is to monitor your self-talk or automatic thoughts when you attempt to pause long enough to fully experience a positive emotion. Do you find yourself fighting against it or thinking of yourself as not deserving? Do you question the practice and think it is a waste of time or silly? Do you get stuck thinking about the next negative thing that will come your way? This is nice, but . . . ?
Finally, take time to check-in with yourself throughout the day and mentally take note of the positive experiences you have had as well as the positive emotions you have collected. Sometimes it can be something very small. A hug or smile from a loved one. A phone call or text message. Recalling a pleasant memory. Looking at the picture of a close friend. Exchanging a smile with a stranger. Enjoying a few minutes to sit quietly and drink a cup of coffee.
Pause long enough to recall your positive experiences and emotions as you near the end of your day. Imagine you are looking through your backpack and counting each one. Take a brief inventory and connect with a sense of appreciation for taking the time to practice accumulating positive emotions. Having connected more intentionally with your positive emotions you may find yourself more recharged and satisfied. We can’t rid our lives of negative experience or emotions, but we can certainty feel empowered to appreciate the positives ones.
Dr. Thomas Lindquist, Psy.D.
Visit us at lindquistpsych.com
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