Let’s Get Meta: A Strategy for Dealing with Painful Emotions

Let’s Get Meta: A Strategy for Dealing with Painful Emotions

I love when things get meta.

We can think, and we can think about how we think.

We can talk, and we can talk about how we talk.

We can draw, and we can draw ourselves drawing.

Drawing Hands, 1948 - M.C. Escher

Indeed, being able to “get meta” is a cool part (I think) of being human — the ability to step out of a system we exist in, to observe ourselves and our actions from an “outsider’s” view, often leads to profound insights (and certainly engages us in some entertaining mental gymnastics).

While it may seem these types of explorations are reserved for late-night philosophical conversations amongst young adults getting high for the first time, they also have some practical applications. In particular, this type of thinking can be an effective way to deal with painful emotions.

Emotions, too, get meta.

There’s how we feel—such as angry or sad—and then there’s how we feel about how we feel—such as ashamed that we’re angry. (There’s also how we feel about how we feel about how we feel, and so on, but meaning gets lost after a few iterations, and I find it most productive to focus on the first two.)

Distinguishing between emotions and meta-emotions can be a really helpful practice, but most of us don’t really think about our emotions in this way, at least not explicitly. When dealing with painful emotions, in particular, we tend to take two approaches.

Suppressing, Numbing, or Changing Emotions

Painful emotions are, well, painful, and so many of us will try to suppress that emotion, numb it, or otherwise change it to something more positive. Maybe we ignore that the pain exists and just put on a happy face. Maybe we over-indulge in pleasurable activities to relieve the pain. Maybe we try to logic ourselves out of it.

Whatever the case, these techniques don’t really work. Emotions need validation and space to run their course, and trying to push them away is ultimately destructive towards our well-being. It’s also pretty darn hard to change our initial emotional reaction to something; trying to teach ourselves to not feel sad in response to a sad situation is doable, perhaps, but requires A LOT of focused effort.

Enter: meta-emotions.

What’s happening here, really, is that we feel shitty about feeling shitty; the emotion and the meta-emotion are in agreement, and both are telling us to do whatever we can to stop feeling shitty.

But emotions and meta-emotions don’t need to be congruent. You can feel sad, but you can feel content about feeling sad. Contentment != sadness, but they coexist in these two layers.

In fact, this is the tremendous power of meta-emotions: we can validate and give space to our emotions without letting them consume our entire being. Similar to how we can observe our thoughts without engaging them (#meditation), we can learn to separate our meta-emotion from the core emotion, finding peace amidst chaos, contentment amidst pain.

Unleashing Emotions

The second popular approach to dealing with a painful emotion is to funnel that emotion directly into our actions, often towards other people. If we’re angry, we might yell at our colleagues. If we’re jealous of a friend or partner, we might try to control their every move or set unrealistic expectations of them. If we feel threatened or insecure, we might lash out in a volatile way.

It’s absolutely important to find ways to express painful emotions, but we should be thoughtful about how we do this. Shoving your anger into a partner’s face, I’d argue, is less productive than releasing anger through a vigorous workout.

Again, meta-emotions play a key role in adopting these healthier coping mechanisms; we can decide how we want to feel about our emotion, and then let that meta-emotion, not the emotion itself, dictate our actions. We can feel anger but choose to act in a calm way, or perhaps just take a minute to observe our anger and decide on an appropriate outlet for it. In either case, we’re not resisting or giving ourselves over entirely to the emotion; we are validating it and choosing how we want to deal with it.

I’ll also point out that separating out emotions from meta-emotions requires labeling of emotions, which in itself is super powerful (and is actually often used as a technique in negotiations). Labeling intense, negative emotions (e.g., verbalizing that what a person is feeling is “fear”) diffuses their intensity, and thus opens up the door for empathy and productive conversation. If this technique works well between two individuals at a high-stakes negotiation table, it surely can work within our own minds as well, and we may find that the simple act of labeling removes the need to unleash at all.

. . .

While it may feel a bit clunky and overly rational to distinguish between emotions and meta-emotions, this framing should ultimately feel freeing — we can let our emotions roam free, without judgement, and instead focus our energy on how we want to feel about, deal with, and act in response to how we feel.