How to Deal With Your ‘Meta-Emotions’—aka Feeling Bad About Your Feelings
When I lose my cool, two things tend to happen.
First, I get angry at the situation. Why can’t the stupid trains just run on a schedule? Why did I seem to hit every possible “don’t walk” sign as I sprinted to the station? Why does the world have it out for me?!
Then, I get mad at myself for getting mad. Why am I letting a silly train ruin my day? Don’t I know better by now? What’s the point of doing all those meditations and breathing exercises if I go nuclear at the sight of closing subway doors?
I’m not the only one to get upset at myself for how I feel. A recent study shines light on “meta-emotions,” or emotions about your emotions, finding that humans have a range of feelings about feelings, and experience them regularly.
Confused? Let me break it down: Say you’re in a great mood—you could probably label the way you’re feeling as “happy.” But how do you feel about feeling happy? Maybe it’s been a while since you last felt such unbridled joy, and you’re relieved by your good mood. Perhaps everyone around you is upset, which leaves you feeling guilty about that smile on your face. Or, maybe you’re waiting for the other shoe to drop, nervous that your good mood will turn sour. That’s your meta-emotions in action.
"Meta-emotions can be classified into four types: negative-negative (e.g., feeling embarrassed about feeling sad), negative-positive (e.g., feeling guilty about feeling happy), positive-positive (e.g., feeling hopeful about feeling relieved), and positive-negative (e.g., feeling pleased about feeling angry),” write the study authors. “In our study, negative-negative meta-emotions were the most common type. This indicates that many people get upset, nervous, or angry about their own negative emotions, in particular."
The study found that over half of participants experienced at least one meta-emotion over the course of a week, and that those super-charged feelings might even be linked to their general mental health.
The researchers aren’t sure why some people experience meta-emotions more than others, but guess that it could have something to do with upbringing—if your parents weren’t big on showing emotion, you might tend to have negative reactions to your own moods. What they do know is that your meta-emotions aren’t as out of your control as you might think.
“Importantly, experiencing negative-negative meta-emotions is not inherently a bad thing,” write the researchers. “The trick may lie in learning to understand these emotions and being flexible about the way you cope with them.”
Here’s how to do it.
ID Your Feels
Step one is to break down your emotions—to separate the underlying emotion from how it’s making you feel. Your meta-emotion might be camouflaging your true emotions, or ever protecting you from experiencing them.
Say you and your sister have one of your famous holiday blowups. You might be coursing with anger, mad at yourself for falling into her trap again, but if you dig a little deeper, you’ll find sadness underneath.
The next time you find yourself deep in emotions, pause. Ask: What am I feeling right now? Why am I feeling it? How do I wish I felt, or expect the best version of me to feel in this situation?
Once you understand how you’re really feeling, you’ll have a clearer idea of how to act.
Understand the Importance of Meta-Emotions
Let’s go back to my train stress.
First I got angry at the trains, and then I got mad at myself for being angry in the first place. At the time, my anger seemed pointless, and even a little embarrassing—wasn’t all that rage a waste of time? Not necessarily. The study authors advocate for appreciating your negative emotions and the ways they might help you.
“If you didn’t get angry when treated unfairly, you might not be motivated to make needed changes to your situation,” they write. “Your negative emotions are important signals that alert you when something is not right in your environment. They can also serve as signals to others that you need help or support. When you are feeling anxious, for example, a friend might notice the muscle tension in your face or a change in your voice and ask you what is wrong.”
In my case, my frustration over missing the train might prompt me to leave a little earlier the next day, so as not to miss it again. When I think of my reaction that way, it doesn’t seem like such a waste of energy.
Practice a Little Self-Kindness
Those rush of emotions you feel? They’re a sign that you’re a living, breathing human. So the next time you get sad, or angry, and then sad or angry about being sad or angry, take a deep breath and take a moment to forgive yourself.
If you’re alone with a few minutes to spare, try taking a self-compassion break, as detailed here: Start by really experiencing the moment: What words or phrases has your inner voice been using? Does your body feel tight or pained? Are you clenching your jaw?
Then, tell yourself (either out loud or silently): “This is a moment of suffering.” By naming the experience, you’re staying mindful and centered in the moment.
Next, tell yourself, “Suffering is a part of life.” This helps normalize the experience, and remind you that what you’re feeling isn’t unique or bad.
Finally, place your hands over your heart, breathe in, and say, “May I be kind to myself.”
Don’t beat yourself up for the negativity or linger on what you could’ve done better. Just ground yourself, remember that this is a universal experience, and try to slowly move on.
This week's recommended meditation: