Negative Emotion Is a Compass

Maybe you’ve had experiences like these…

I’m driving down the highway, cruising along at the pace of traffic, when I see a slow-moving truck in front of me. The lane beside me looks clear, so I switch on my turn signal and prepare to pass the truck. But just as I begin to accelerate and change lanes, a car swerves in front of me. I’m forced to react quickly – slamming on the breaks and slowing back down.

How dare that person cut me off. They could have hit me. What right do they have to drive like that?

I know I shouldn’t get upset. I know I should remain calm and show patience. I know the driver is just overtaking the same truck.

But I struggle. Despite knowing the more appropriate response, I can’t help but feel angry.

Or I’m reading in the quiet of park. The day is warm and sunny. Flowers bloom all around me. The silence is perfect. Or so it is until the park grounds’ crew comes by with their lawn-mower. Its roar shatters the serenity. The whirring of the motor makes it impossible to concentrate. I can’t block it out. I can’t focus on my book.

Why do they have to pick right now to mow the grass? Can’t they see that I’m sitting here peacefully? Can’t they show me a bit of courtesy?

I know I shouldn’t take it personally. I know the grounds’ crew is just doing their job. I know that I can easily move to somewhere quieter. I know I shouldn’t get annoyed.

But I struggle. Despite knowing the more appropriate response, I can’t help but feel frustrated.

Or I’m at the end of a long day – a day full of hard work. All I want to do is relax. I just want to disconnect for a bit. But there’s a pile of dishes to do. And family demands my time and attention. I don’t get the chance to rest.

Why can’t I just have a some time to myself. Can’t they see I’m tired? Don’t they understand I need a break?

I know I shouldn’t be so self-centered. I know my wife has probably had a long day too. I know I should be grateful for the time with those I love.

But I struggle. Despite knowing the more appropriate response, I can’t help but feel uptight.


Sometimes there’s a gap between how we know we should respond and how we actually respond. In those times, it’s easy to get frustrated at our shortcomings.

But getting upset at ourselves isn’t helpful. It puts us in a downward spiral.

Instead, give yourself a bit of grace and remember that frustrations – and similar emotions – are information. They tell us something’s not right.

Celebrate your awareness β€” that you noticed your emotion. For having a clear picture of what is happening is the first part of practice. It offers an opportunity to reflect, go deeper, and ask questions.

Why are we unable to show patience, grace and gratitude? What does the situation say about ourselves? What triggered our frustration? How can we be better prepared in the future? What would make it easier to respond differently?

So we explore and examine. And next time, just maybe, the experience will be different.


10 thoughts on “Negative Emotion Is a Compass”

  1. I certainly struggle with these things also. Thanks for the thoughtful reflection questions! I also ask myself why I feel like I am more important than the other person.

  2. Excellent post, Joshua. I’ve been thinking about anger recently also. In fact, I’m planning to give a Sunday School lesson on it this Sunday, so I’m glad you shared your thoughts. I’ll definitely be using them.

    Athletes (or anyone who has experienced an intense workout) understand the concept of ‘mind over body’. Your body is in pain, it’s tired, you want to stop and rest, but you keep going, another rep, another lap, one more round. Your mind controls your body, even when it’s hard.

    And then, after the struggle is over, you feel good about it. Victory, accomplishment, strength.

    Controlling our anger can be a similar effort. It might be called ‘mind over mind’, ‘mind over emotion’, or ‘spirit over mind’, but it’s the same concept of controlling ourselves when some other part of us wants to do something else.

    And I think that’s part of the task of being a better human being, or more God-like if you will, aligning our actions to a set of standards that are higher, or more difficult than our body naturally desires.

    But I like your connotation of not getting upset at ourselves. Awareness is a huge step. This is difficult work, or else it wouldn’t be worthwhile. And that’s why what you’ve written is so meaningful, it gives us more awareness.

    Anger is a compass. If we follow and make corrections, it will lead us to higher ground.

    Thanks for the awareness, Joshua.

    1. Interesting analogy. What makes an athlete is their ability to perform at a high level in the face of challenging circumstances. And we’re developing the ability to perform (align our actions to higher standards) in the face of challenging circumstances (anger). I like the comparison.

      To take it even further, the athlete doesn’t just cope with the situation, but uses it as a platform to rise up and thrive. That’s our call/challenge.

  3. It seems , at times, moods descend into us from who knows where. I do appreciate people , however , who feel the mood , but recognize, how it colors what’s before them. That it may not reflect the true situation . Its a challenge to break from ourselves to see that the issue is often inside us and not about others.

    I think the problem is when people don’t look past their moods , fail to inject reason, and live it out. Thank goodness most of us do have that second person in us that can step back ,attempt a broader picture, and hold on until it passes.

    1. Your comment makes me think of an analogy I’ve found helpful on my journey. Such moods are like waves on the sea. We can either oppose them (and get dragged under by them) or we can let them pass (and ride them up and down). Responding that way doesn’t always come naturally, but it’s something we can learn.

  4. And sometimes if you are fully present you can invite anger to the table as Rumi suggests and laugh because he/she was sent to you to from the great beyond to help you be more present.

  5. Some good advice there. Laugh , as Lisa says, as it was sent from the great beyond, or ride the mood like waves on the sea. Or maybe both. Laugh and bob ! Quite a visual there.

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