Drowning in Emotions

Written by
Michael Wells

Drowning in Emotions

Why it Happens, and How to Swim

Written by
Michael Wells

Drowning in Emotions

Why it Happens, and How to Swim

Written by
Michael Wells

This article is part of the series 


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“How do I forget the past completely? It's triggering my negative emotions. When I try to not think of it, I'm always thinking about it.”
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Have you ever done whitewater rafting?

When you’re rafting a river, there’s always a risk that you’ll fall out of the raft, and get swept away in the currents.

It's an intense experience. The river is powerful. You try to keep your legs pointed downstream, so you won't hit rocks headfirst... but you have very little control. Your shoes get ripped off, shirt and pants follow pretty quickly. There is a lot happening and you're pretty much at the mercy of what's happening around you.

If you’re especially unlucky, you’ll go over a waterfall, and this is where a lot of people run into real trouble.

As the water cascades downward, the sheer force of if forces you underwater too. That means you're fighting gravity and 100's of liters of water per second pushing you down.

All of your instincts are screaming at you to swim upward for air, but that’s exactly the wrong thing to do.

The reason is simple. If you swim upwards, the best you can hope for is to surface near the waterfall, a few meters away. In that location, the current drags you back towards the waterfall, where you get pushed downward again. And again. And again.

This vortex is called a “washing machine,” and if you fight it, you won’t win. The river has way more time and breath than you do.

If you want to escape, you have to fight your instincts and swim down. Go deeper, and the water will push you out the other side of the vortex.

The same principle applies to ocean rip-currents, where you need to swim parallel to the shore, rather than towards it. It also applies when you're saving a drowning person who has latched on to you. They are panicking, and will try to climb on top of you, and will drown you with them- so you have to  swim down, away, and then surface out of reach.

Sometimes your gut instincts are wrong, and will lead you in exactly the wrong direction.

Why does this have to do with emotions?


Because every day, I see people react to other strong emotions in exactly the same way. They try to swim away from painful emotions, and towards comfort...

But that instinct is wrong.

You need to go deeper, instead.

Why Past Emotions Stay Strong

There’s a reason these emotions won’t go away.

Those negative emotions you’re feeling are inside of you. They have very little to do with the past, which cannot be changed- and everything to do with the present- and actions that you still need to take.

Part of your mind knows there is something that you need to do, or something you need to learn, before that situation is resolved. Until then, your brain will hold on to those emotions and keep firing them at you until you take the necessary action.

Otherwise, you’re probably going to repeat the same mistakes again, and again.

Every single negative emotion you feel about past events is simply your mind trying to draw your attention to that thing you need to do or to learn.

It works, doesn’t it?

Once you do or learn what you need to, your mind no longer needs to draw your attention to that experience, and it will stop generating those emotions.

And just like that, whoosh, you're out of the washing machine, floating down the river into a nice calm lake.

It's that simple.

In fact, you’ll probably feel positive emotions- appreciation for what you learned. Relief that experience is over. Excitement that you now know better how to create a happier future for yourself.

Learning to Swim

But, if this were easy, everyone would instinctively know how to do it.

We wouldn't need therapists, and I'd have very few coaching clients. The truth is, our nature is to avoid pain, and we need to learn how to confront it directly.

There are a lot of ways to go deeper. Therapy, coaching, certain types of meditation are all good. The easiest and most accessible way is simply journaling.

How to Start Journaling

As simple as journaling sounds, it's more powerful than you can imagine.

Grab a notebook, and a pen.

Pick one of the experiences you are feeling negative emotions about, and give it a name. Maybe it’s “got fired,” or “broke up with X,” or “had a fight with Mom.”

At the top of a blank page, write that title.

Now, write these questions, and answer each of them.

  • What emotions am I feeling? Be detailed. Describe how they feel.
  • Why do I think I’m feeling these emotions?
  • Are my reactions 100% legit? Or is there some bullshit there in my thinking?
  • How should things have gone, instead?
  • Were my expectations reasonable? If another person was involved, were my expectations clearly known to them, and did they feel the same way?
  • Is there something I can do now? Stop hanging out with person X, or have a discussion with person Y? How can I change my world, or my habits to improve myself in ways that matter to me?
  • If I could go back and change what I did, and how I reacted in that moment, what would I change?

When you find the answer, you’ll feel it.

Pretty much all the emotion will just evaporate- in my experience, almost instantaneously. All you’re left with is an intense feeling of relief, a smile, an a tiny bit of regret…

“sheesh, I wish I’d realized this earlier…”

Perfecting your Journaling Practice

Of all of the psychology and therapy practices I've ever studied, journaling has proven to be the most powerful, accessible, and thorough.

Every wise human I've ever known, from Marcus Aurelius to Socrates has a well-developed journaling practice.

If you want to take your journaling deeper, I have two courses you're welcome to grab, entirely free.

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First published on 
. Last updated on 
March 16, 2022

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