How Negative Emotions are a Call to Action


Emotional Mastery

“Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” — Albert Einstein

Negative emotions are Action Signals.

You can use how you feel to make your life better.  While negative emotions may be painful, they may also be our best friend.   We can use negative emotions to change the quality of our life immediately.

Use Emotions as a Call to Action

I was listening to Tony Robbins talk about how we could master our emotions.   He said that the key to mastering emotions is to use them as a call to action.

Every emotion has a message for you.  Appreciate the message.  Negative emotions are a signal that change is needed.

You can either change your perception or change your approach.

Change Your Perception or Change Your Procedure

What if you knew that no matter what negative emotion you felt, in a moment or two you could  get out of that feeling?   According to Tony, you can.  At any moment when you feel any negative emotion, the first step is to identify the Action Signal.  The Action Signal is the message that the particular negative emotion means.   The next step, after you clarified the Action Signal, is to take action by either changing your perception or changing your procedure.  You change your perception by changing how you look at it or what you focus on.  You change your procedure by changing your approach or how you are responding in the situation.

10 Types of Emotions

According to Tony, here are the 10 broad categories of emotions to use for this exercise:

  1. Uncomfortable – Impatient, uneasy, distressed, mildly embarrassed.
  2. Fear – Concern, apprehension, scared, terrified.
  3. Hurt –  Sense of loss.
  4. Anger – mildly irritated, resentful, livid, rage.
  5. Frustration – held back or hindered in the pursuit of something.
  6. Disappointment – sad, defeated.
  7. Guilt – emotions or regret.
  8. Inadequacy – less than or unworthy.
  9. Overloaded – overwhelmed, hopeless, or depressed.
  10. Loneliness – apart or separate from.

This is the set of negative emotions that we’ll turn into Action Signals.  Instead of getting controlled by these emotions, we’ll use them as signals to take action.  That action is to either change our perception or change our behavior.

Action Signals

According to Tony, here are what the 10 Action Signals mean:

  1. Uncomfortable –  When you feel uncomfortable, this is a signal to change your state.  Clarify what you want, then take action in that direction.
  2. Fear – Fear is a signal to prepare ourselves or get prepared.  Get yourself prepared to deal with something that’s about to come.  If it’s beyond your control, then change your perception and let it go.
  3. Hurt –   Hurt is a signal that you have an expectation that’s not being met or you have a sense of loss.   Evaluate whether there really is a loss.   Next, change your perception or change your way of communicating your needs or change your behavior.
  4. Anger –  This is a signal that an important rule that you have in your life has been violated by somebody else or maybe even you.  Clarify your rules or adjust them.  Your rules might not match other people’s rules so if you don’t change them, you might be angry the rest of your life.
  5. Frustration –  The signal is you’re doing the same thing over again and expecting a different result.  You need to change your approach to achieving your goal.
  6. Disappointment – This is a signal that you need to realize that an expectation or an outcome you had won’t happen, and you need to change your expectation.  For example, maybe your timeframe was too short.
  7. Guilt – Guilt is a signal that you violated one of your own standards.  Don’t stay in guilt, but don’t deny it.  Make things right when you screw up. When you can’t change the past, change your present and future behaviors.  Recognize when you’re feeling guilty when you shouldn’t be, change your perception, and let it go.
  8. Inadequacy – This is a signal that you need to do something to get better.  Get up and do something to get better or change your criteria.  Maybe your rules are too harsh.  You don’t have to be perfect – you simply need to start taking action, such as go practice, to improve at whatever it is.
  9. Overloaded –  This is a signal to reevaluate what is most important to you in this situation.  Distinguish between what is a necessity versus. what is a desire.  Prioritize your list.  Take the first one on your list and do something about it.  Do something to take control of events instead of let them control you.  The simplest way is to chunk it down, take one thing, and act on it.
  10. Loneliness –  The signal is we need a connection with people.  Clarify what kind of connection you need: basic friendship, somebody to laugh with, somebody to listen to you, etc.  Then change your approach or change your perception..

I have to say, this is some of the most effective and actionable guidance I’ve heard on mastering emotions.  What I like about it is that rather than simply dismiss your negative emotions or suppress them, it’s about embracing them, and using them to inspire action.  It’s a way to empower yourself to make meaningful changes in your life, and make the most of any negative emotion to avoid spiraling down or stewing in your own juices.  You control your emotions instead of letting your emotions control you.

Photo by OiMax.


  1. J.D.,

    A much needed perspective that more people need to hear about.

    Our emotions let us know when something needs to be looked at a little closer. Almost like an inner warning system. I’m not sure a lot of folks ever have such a conversation, especially the young.

    Each category speaks to me. My greatest personal teacher has been fear. I used to run away from it, now I walk toward it with open arms. I developed a horrible fear of speaking up maybe around 10ish. Spent years sliding down the seat in class, hoping I wouldn’t get called on.

    Then in college I couldn’t stand it anymore and signed up for a speech class and then another and another. Now, I ask a question or make a comment whenever it’s an open forum.

    I love speaking up now! So liberating. Thx, G.

  2. Most people don’t understand that our emotions are a valuable feedback system. They’re neither good nor bad, they just let us know when what we’re thinking isn’t serving us. If you change our perception (your reaction to whatever it is you’re focusing on) and you change your emotions. Tony was one of the first big teachers to bring this concept to mass market. Now, more people are talking about it than ever, but still, our society doesn’t quite yet “get” the importance of embracing and utilizing emotions rather than suppressing them. Thanks for a valuable reminder, J.D.


  3. I have never understood why folks do not use their emotions or even have a larger emotional vocabulary – having more words is very helpful in gaining clarity.

    I use the example of a fog horn when talking with depressed teens. They can call tell me what good the fog horn does and even why it makes the kind of deep sound it does – it provides safety for ships and boats – marks the channel when it is foggy.

    Think of depression as a foghorn…how does it guide and keep us safe?

    We have these miraculous tools, but they do take practice not just medications…

    Since the gut calls the shots, emotions also need the right foods
    Thanks JD

  4. Nice blog, JD. A wise seeker asks, “if my own way is so right, how come I feel so wrong?” He then realizes that his emotions have something in common with his higher wisdom. I like your style. blessings

  5. Hi JD,

    You’re right that acknowledging and responding to these negative feelings works better than burying them and pretending we don’t feel them. I learnt this the hard way!


  6. J.D.,
    Good post. I’ve listened to the same Robbins talk about emotions. It is great stuff – the hard part is actually implementing the ideas. There is real power is understanding how negative emotions are action signals. And, really, it has more to do with just “understanding” this idea. We get so frustrated when we have these negative emotions – but it can be a positive. Thanks for the reminder!

  7. @ Giuletta — I think your story of going from fear to liberation is a powerful one.

    I think fear is one of those things that can easily trigger us to spiral up or eat at us ina way we spiral down depending on how we act on it.

    @ Melody — I really like your point that emotions are a feedback system.

    It’s true that society doesn’t quite “get” it yet, and that reminded me of a “King of the Hill” episode where Hank was teaching Bobby to eat his emotions and bury them way down deep inside 🙂

    Using emotions as a feedback loop for growth and greatness is a powerful recipe for results.

    @ Patricia — I think you hit the nail on the head — we need a larger emotional vocabulary so we can identify, clarify, and act with precision and accuracy.

    Beautiful point on feeding emotions what they need so the gut can call better shots.

    @ Rob — Beautiful explicit link between emotions and our higher wisdom. Our instincts can serve us when we use the right lens.

    @ Daphne — You reminded me of a related point that’s important to tease out. The faster we can get out of a negative state by turning it into action, the better off we are. Otherwise, we start building ruts and grooves that make it hard to breat out.

    @ Jason — I think you highlighted the #1 problem with the world’s best advice — turning insight into action.

    I think the trick is always finding the simplest thing we can do that gives immediate payback in some small way. The little hacks add up and create a “force multiplier.”

    In this case, I think the key is both reframing emotions as signals, and finding personal success patterns for taking quick, effective action that works for us.

  8. Me and my wife felt loneliness recently very strong. We changed our approach connecting with people and it indeed paid off

  9. J.D. I thought this was some great advice and it makes perfect sense that we should use our negative motions as a sign that we need to turn things around. I really appreciated what you said about being on the lookout for them and recognizing them. That really is the first step to changing and improving them. Great message and insights you have here.

  10. Great article JD.
    Our emotions are our bodies way of saying, something is wrong.
    If we need to be with other people it lets us know by emotion.

    If we are not in balance it lets us know and so on.

    Listening to those emotions is central to feeling better.

  11. @ Alik — Great move on changing your approach. It’s one thing to want to feel differently, it’s another to do something about it, and you did.

    @ Sibyl — The way you put it is a great one-liner reminder, “a sign that we need to turn things around.”

    @ Daniel — Thank you. Yes, our body lets us know through emotions. The trick of course if figuring out our next action.

    I like how Tony framed the action as changing perception or changing procedure — right off the bat, this helps set the state for decisive action.

  12. Nice one, JD. When you’re dealing with negative emotions, the healthiest way to respond is with positive action. I like to think there is only one emotion and that is love. Anything in opposition is simply a backwards use of love. What you listed from Tony as anger sounds a great deal like self-betrayal. I find that very interesting.

  13. Hi JD .. a great list to refer to .. to read when we’re going through an emotional tangle .. I hope I’m through my worst now re my mother and the Home, and re my family .. I’m probably ok elsewhere – I just get on with it .. but the emotions can really tear into you.

    This list will be really useful to have with me – I’ll put it with your book, and use it in the acting course I’m doing – where we need to express these without actually being in that state: quite difficult to do .. I’m taking the course for the public speaking aspect, but really appreciate the story telling that comes into elements of learning to act.

    Thanks – I so appreciate those souls who are at peace with themselves and let things wash over them .. I learn as I go .. cheers Hilary

  14. @ Hilary — So true. In fact, just yesterday I was remarking to someone that emotional intelligence is one of the most important skills to master in life.

    I think it’s great you’re taking up acting.

  15. […] are discontinuities between your needs being met and the situation, they are in Tony Robbins world Action Signals.    I think a hierarchy of emotions could be made with anger at the top.    Meaning anger can […]

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