Get Out of the Dirty Chair: Tools to Release Negative Emotions

wooden chair by itself

You’re having a bad day. You’re on the verge of either snapping or crying and can’t seem to get a handle on your reactions to everyday life events. You wake up exhausted, yell at traffic on your way to work, and sob in the bathroom when your boss offers a slight criticism. None of this behavior is typical for you. What is going on?

You’re probably sitting in a dirty chair. The dirty chair is a term coined by Sroibel Martinez, CEO of SMPsychotherapy and Counseling Services, to explain the emotional place we find ourselves in when we can’t seem to shake negative emotions. Negative feelings and emotional experiences are part of life, but sometimes we have trouble shaking the feelings off and moving on. Often, we don’t even realize the true cause of our emotional outbursts and fatigue.

Staying in a negative emotional space for too long can affect your relationships, mental health, and self-esteem. This blog explores the concept of the dirty chair and how you can use it to understand your emotions, reframe your thoughts, and develop strategies for pulling yourself out of a web of negative emotions.

What is the Dirty Chair?

Experiencing a range of emotions is part of the human experience. We all share the basic emotions of love, sadness, happiness, fear, anger, surprise, and disgust. We express emotions through body language, facial expressions, and internal processes like rising heart rate and blood pressure. These emotional reactions are unconscious, meaning we don’t control them.

But, we do have control over how we act after experiencing different emotions. For example, we can feel love toward someone yet not reach out to hug them. We can feel sadness over losing a loved one, yet choose to create the lives we want to live after honoring our grief.

We experience each of these positive and negative emotions differently depending on current and past experiences and the thoughts or actions that follow those feelings. Sometimes, with negative emotions, we get stuck in a space where we feel anger or sadness. Then, our minds get stuck on thoughts that reinforce that emotion. When our minds and emotions are stuck, our actions don’t help us escape the negative spiral. We find ourselves sitting in a dirty chair.

What Makes Negative Emotions Worse?

Sitting in the dirty chair means you experienced a negative emotion such as anger, fear, sadness, or disgust and your thoughts kept you behaving in ways that caused you to sit further back, get more comfortable, and allow filth to pile up, making it more and more difficult to get up. Here are some things that can make getting out of the dirty chair more difficult. To make this more relatable, we’re going to imagine a dirty chair that started because we did something that embarrassed us and felt shame.


Rumination, or constantly thinking about negative thoughts such as “I’m always so stupid, I never do anything right.” Rumination is harmful because it can lead to unhealthy coping mechanisms such as substance abuse and physical health problems like insomnia and high blood pressure. Rumination can also affect your mental health.

Repeated negative experiences

If you have one negative experience where you feel embarrassed, it’s easy enough to shake off. However, if another person ridicules you for your mistake, you may relive it and feel shame all over again. The more times you experience a similar event, the more likely you are to fall into a dirty chair.

Can’t We Just Turn Off Negative Emotions?

woman sitting on a brown couch

The short answer is you could, but it’s not a good idea for your overall well-being. Our negative emotions are biological responses designed to keep us away from danger. If you feel afraid, the emotion is telling you to act – to change something about your current situation so you can eliminate that feeling. Ignoring the feelings doesn’t solve the problem so the fear will reoccur. This recurrence of negative emotions can lead to chronic stress and health problems.

Rather than turn off negative emotions, it’s essential to recognize them, observe how they feel in your body, find the cause, and figure out what they’re trying to tell you about your life. Every negative emotion is trying to teach you something.

  • Sadness or grief can cause you to pay more attention and be more present in your life.
  • Feeling angry can mean you must change situations or relationships in your life.
  • Being afraid may offer insight into personal growth areas.
  • Anxiety can prompt you to look for new ways to solve problems that don’t activate your flight or fight response.
  • Feeling guilty can help you avoid negative behavior patterns.
  • Jealousy can guide you toward your true desires and make you work harder to achieve them.

Coping Strategies to Get Out of the Dirty Chair

Okay, so we don’t want to ignore negative emotions but don’t want to stay in our dirty chair of self-loathing or anger. So how do we develop healthy ways of coping with negative emotions to manage daily life better?

Listen to your body

Part of developing emotional intelligence is learning how emotions affect your body. Does your heart rate increase when you’re angry? Do tears sting your eyes when you’re sad? Do you have trouble concentrating when you’re overwhelmed by grief? When a negative emotion strikes, talking out loud about what’s happening to your body or writing about it can help remove the power of emotion.

Express your emotions

Learning to express emotions appropriately is critical to managing them in healthy ways. You may want to have a trusted friend or family member listen as you work through emotions without interrupting. You can also talk in an empty room or journal. Name the emotion you feel (don’t worry about being 100% on target – just give it a name.

Accept your emotions without judgment

Understand that you are human, and experiencing these emotions is simply evidence of your capacity to experience life. Name it, express it, understand how it affects you, and tell yourself it’s okay to feel the way you feel.

Reappraise and Reframe

It may be possible to reappraise a negative experience and reframe it in a negative light. If you’re angry because your partner left the laundry in the washer (again) and it smells bad (again), you can feel angry, fix the smelly laundry, and stew in resentment. Or, you can reframe the thought as, “My partner started laundry because they contribute to our household. Then, they got busy and forgot.” This can calm your anger, and you can remind your partner of the laundry and let them fix it.

Respond, Don’t React

woman stressed and holding her neck

You don’t have to react a certain way just because you feel an emotion. Anger doesn’t mean you must be violent or yell. Sadness doesn’t mean you should pull the covers over your head and hide for the day. You can (and should) do something in response to negative emotions, but sometimes finding the right thing to do can be difficult. This is why we recommend having a constructive self-care practice for supporting emotional regulation, such as:

  • Finding social support from someone who can listen, hug you, or take you out for a distraction.
  • Journaling about your emotions and how they impact your life and body.
  • Meditation to quiet your nervous system.
  • Visualizing how you want to respond to the negative experience instead of reacting immediately.
  • Creatng a positive experience to group with the negative. If you had a tough day at work, find a friend with whom to watch a movie or head to the gym to get some endorphins flowing.
  • Practicing gratitude for everything that brings you joy – even if it’s just your morning cup of coffee today.
  • Taking a break because most negative emotions lessen in intensity after a good night’s sleep.
  • Creating a routine to let go of emotions, such as writing them on paper and throwing them away.

Get Help Releasing Negative Emotions

woman standing up next to a white office chair

If negative emotions keep you stuck more often than not, and you often find yourself angry or sad, you may need help creating interventions to help with emotional regulation. Working with a therapist can help you develop emotional intelligence, enhance problem-solving skills, and help you better manage complex emotional states.

At SMPsychotherapy and Counseling Services, we understand your struggles and can help you develop tools and strategies for managing the full range of human emotions. Contacta nuestra oficina hoy to schedule an appointment and learn more about managing difficult emotions and getting out of the dirty chair.

¿Estás Buscando Más? 

For more about how negative emotions impact our lives, get on the waitlist for the new book, Unbreakable by Soribel Martinez, LCSW, CEO of SMPsychotherapy and Counseling Services. The book releases in Spring 2023. It’s a story of one woman’s journey through adversity and how you can use her principles to build the life of your dreams. ¡Únete a la Lista de Espera Aquí!

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