Musa is a brilliant 200L undergraduate who is very shy and withdrawn and frequently looks
miserable. Tunde, his roommate, finds it very difficult to understand him, as he always seems to
have negative emotions all the time. Despite his excellent academic grades, Musa often feels he
is not really good at his studies and frequently has doubts about his abilities. He has low self-
esteem, and will usually blame himself for any and everything that goes wrong. It was only after
living together for two years that Tunde realized that Musa had a baby brother who died when
they were in primary school. Musa and his brother were playing in the compound when the
baby brother jumped from a height and died after hitting his head on the floor. Since then,
Musa believed that he was careless and responsible for his brother’s death. He has been feeling
guilty about everything ever since, even though his parents encouraged and supported him at
the time. Tunde knew this feeling of guilt was wrong and realized that it was affecting Musa’s
life and functioning.
So when powerful and negative emotions hold us ransom, as in the case of Musa above, how
do we break free? How should we handle negative emotions? While it may appear fairly
straightforward, especially when it affects others, it is quite common that you and I may have
strong feelings about various situations and circumstances in our life that makes us
uncomfortable and we usually just try to suppress them or we react negatively through anger.
It takes some honest thinking or discussion with a therapist to identify what emotions are
holding us back or weighing us down in our day-to-day lives.
Remember that human emotions are very powerful influences on our behavior. Experiencing
strong emotions may push us to take actions we would not have ordinarily taken, or they may
compel us to avoid situations or persons which generate such strong emotions. Emotions may
be considered as positive or pleasant and enjoyable if they make us feel good about ourselves.
On the other hand, emotions may also be considered to be negative or unpleasant if they make
us feel uncomfortable.
Negative emotions usually make us uncomfortable by affecting us in some of the following
Dignity and self-respect: Such as when we feel ashamed, embarrassed, criticized, ridiculed,
insulted, humiliated, unappreciated e.t.c.
Personal safety is threatened: Such as when we are attacked, afraid, insecure, intimidated,
abused or violated, threatened e.t.c.
Integrity and Truth: Such as being falsely accused, judged, stereotyped, blamed, cheated,
misled, wrongly punished, lied to, e.t.c.
The first step in the handling of negative emotions is to pause and ask ourselves the question:
Why am I so angry and worked up? What exactly is making me feel so humiliated? Why do I feel disrespected because he criticized my work? Why do I feel so badly cheated? In the answer to
these questions, lie the seed of examining, accepting, and learning from our negative emotions.
Anger, for example, is often a consequence of fear or feeling threatened. The threat may be to
our self-respect, ego, or our physical safety. So firstly, we experience fear or a threat, and then
our anger erupts to protect us from the threat or fear. Or we may feel powerless and become
angry to help us re-assert control and influence.
Therefore, the question to ask here is “Why am I so upset and angry?” “In what way do I feel
threatened by what has happened?” Thus, when we become angry, and we pause for a minute
to consider the root causes of our emotional reaction (anger), we will learn a lot more about
our insecurities and the situations that make us afraid or uncomfortable. This understanding
helps us to stay in control of our emotions instead of erupting in anger, and we can then calmly
consider the various options to handle the situation.
Feelings of guilt also follow a similar pattern. Guilt stems from internal criticism of self, where
you think you have done something (or should have done something) that is against your
personal conscience. So, the question to consider is whether or not the standards of your
conscience are reasonable or not. In the example of Musa above, it is certainly unreasonable to
hold himself responsible for such an unfortunate accident. Secondly, if we acknowledge that we
have wronged another person, admitting the same and apologizing will also help to lift the
feelings of guilt – regardless of whether or not the person accepted the apology.
Similarly, if you are afraid of failure, work hard to achieve success. Afraid of being left alone
with no friends or family in the long run? Then learn to appreciate your loved ones, pay them
compliments, and don’t always insist that things must always go your way – i.e. be flexible.
Dr Jibril Abdulmalik
Tribune Article for the column “Your Mental Health & You”
Thursday, 1st June 2023