The impact of “meta emotions”

by | Mar 26, 2024 | Trend

Breathe - lungs made of branches and flowers

Hello again! 

Have you ever felt bad about feeling bad? Been down on yourself for feeling melancholy? Felt annoyed or angry that anxiety always seems to get the better of you? 

Well these are “meta emotions,” or emotions about other emotions. Most of us have felt this at one point or another. Some of us might even experience this frequently. 

But the truth is, there’s no use in making negative judgements about our negative feelings. It doesn’t help, it only makes things worse. 


Let’s say you’re feeling anxious for a big presentation. And then on top of that, you’re frustrated with yourself for feeling anxious in the first place. You know it doesn’t help you, and instead just leads to a bad night’s sleep and a bunch of wasted energy. Wasted energy which was not productive in and of itself, and wasted time that you cannot retrive ever again. So you worry about your worrying and you worry that worrying about your worrying will send you spiraling out of control and ruining your life….you can see where the “meta” comes from now, right? 

According to Pia Callensen’s meta cognitive therapy research, our beliefs about worry can change how much negative impact it has on our lives. If you view worry as dangerous and uncontrollable it increases the negative impact. If you just observe it without engaging in it, it reduces the impact. In other words, whatever happens, try not to meta-worry. 

Instead, here are three strategies you can implement: 

1. Simply observe the feeling without any judgment. This is part of Acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT therapy). In this practice, you follow six processes: acceptance, cognitive defusion, being present, self as context, values, and committed action. 

2. Ask what is good about the negative feelings you’re experiencing before working to reduce those negative feelings. This is what psychologist David Burns recommends. Rather than seeing negative feelings as a sign of what’s wrong with you, decide to see what makes those negative feelings right about you. Once you acknowledge the benefits of these feelings, it can be easier to reduce the frequency. 

For example, say you judge yourself for feeling anxious and worrying too much about your kids. Instead, tell yourself why those are good emotions. What positive thing does that actually say about you? Well, it shows that you love them and care about their well-being.  

3. Take advice from the stoics. There are many things we can’t control, so it’s best to focus on how we look at these situations instead. Just like seeing the good in negative emotions, it’s all about shifting our perspective. But really, it’s about turning your attention to positive things you are grateful for. These might be things you already have in your life which you take for granted. 

Here’s a helpful exercise from the stoics: Close your eyes and imagine what it would be like to lose one of your senses. Take a few moments to really put yourself in that headspace. Then open your eyes. Pay attention to how you feel. How grateful are you to see, hear, touch, smell?  

Content for Happier Beings

  • In the same vein as our newsletter topic, this helpful Psychology Today article discusses how to notice and thus overcome our negative narratives.

  • The social media content you consume can also contribute to your ability to alter your perception of your emotions. In a new study, researchers found that content which conveyed a fixed mindset like “depression memes” (e.g. a video of someone normalizing that they’ll “always be depressed”) negatively influenced participants’ beliefs about mental illness. Whereas participants who were exposed to content that conveyed a growth mindset (e.g. “this too shall pass”) reported higher mental health self-efficacy. The latter is obviously much more helpful for changing how you feel about your feelings, and staying on the path of better well-being.

  • I found this calendar of daily mindfulness reminders to be a helpful way to, as they say, “pause, breathe, and notice so we can respond more mindfully.”

PS Here’s the newsletter version of this blog post.



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