Most of us react to painful emotions in one of two ways:
1. Escape. We try to avoid or outrun our difficult feelings by distracting ourselves. At the extreme end of this strategy, some people are so hell-bent on avoiding difficult feelings that they keep themselves in a constant state of busyness (and stress) so that they never have a minute to be alone with their thoughts and feelings. This is one of the underlying causes of burnout you rarely hear anyone talk about.
2. Fix. The other way we tend to react to difficult feelings is to try and fix them and make them go away. Maybe you go right to your coping strategies and start deep breathing the second you feel anxious or irritated. Or perhaps your go-to fix-it strategy is reassurance-seeking — outsourcing your emotional struggles to someone else.
While these strategies of escape and fix “work” in the short term — i.e. they give some temporary relief — they make difficult emotions harder to manage in the long term.
When you constantly try to escape or eliminate your feelings, you teach your brain to see them as enemies.
The healthier way to manage difficult feelings is to change your relationship with them. Instead of treating painful emotions as enemies to be avoided or eliminated, you can learn to treat them as friends to be understood and accepted.
Here are 4 tips to get you started.
1. Name it to tame it
Research shows that describing our emotions in plain, ordinary language actually helps to decrease their intensity.
When you acknowledge how you’re feeling in plain, simple language, not only does it help reduce the intensity of the feeling, but it also teaches your brain a valuable lesson: emotions aren’t things to be hidden or covered up — they’re a normal, if uncomfortable, part of the human experience. And it’s normal and okay for me to feel them.
2. Just because it feels bad doesn’t mean it is bad
· Feeling anxious is uncomfortable but it’s not bad. You need fear to keep you safe. And even if your fear is occasionally misplaced, that doesn’t mean it’s bad (or you’re bad for feeling it).
· Sadness is uncomfortable but it’s not bad. Sadness is a perfectly normal response to the loss of something valuable and helps us reflect on the things that matter most to us. It may well feel bad to feel sad, but that doesn’t mean it is bad (or you’re bad for feeling it).
· Even an emotion like guilt isn’t actually bad. The feeling of guilt is one of the ways we remember to avoid doing the wrong thing in the future. Again… Just because it feels bad doesn’t mean it is bad (or you’re bad for feeling it).
So, the next time you experience a difficult or painful emotion, try to remind yourself that just because it feels bad doesn’t mean it is bad.
3. Be curious, not judgmental
We’ve all been conditioned to think that we have to do something about difficult feelings because we believe that they’re bad. But once you accept the premise that just because it feels bad doesn’t mean it is bad, doing nothing becomes a perfectly valid (and actually very effective) method for handling difficult feelings.
Of course, it takes a fair amount of practice to get in the habit of acknowledging our difficult feelings honestly (instead of intellectualizing them), then reminding ourselves that even though they feel bad doesn’t mean they are bad, and then just letting them be while we go about our lives.
You can try to replace your instinct to be judgmental about how you’re feeling with the habit of being curious about it.
· Suppose you notice yourself getting increasingly irritated with your kids.
· Your first reaction is to start getting judgmental with yourself for feeling irritated: I need to relax! They’re just little kids. I shouldn’t have such a short fuse. I’m never going to have a good relationship with my kids if I’m always mad at them!
· Now, try to replace that judgmental self-talk with curiosity: Yes, I am irritated and I’d rather not be, but there are probably some reasons why. They are being pretty obnoxious right now. And, today was really stressful at work, which is probably a big part of why I’m feeling more irritable than usual. Let me try figuring out how to ease out the situation. Maybe we can all go for a walk to the park and get some of that energy out.
Judging yourself for feeling bad is understandable but totally counterproductive…
If you can start to cultivate a habit of being curious about difficult feelings, rather than judgmental, not only will those feelings subside more quickly, you’ll also be fostering a much kinder, gentler relationship with your own mind.
4. Practice with small emotions
If you want to do something challenging like run a marathon you have to train for it. And that means starting with running a couple miles and slowly building your way up. The same principle applies to dealing with difficult emotions…
You can’t just expect to be an expert at managing hugely painful emotions if you haven’t practiced.
And the best way to practice is to start small and work your way up.
· Let’s say you struggle with social anxiety.
· And the thing your social anxiety is really holding you back from is making new friends.
· But striking up conversations with brand new people is just about the scariest thing you can imagine doing.
· Instead of trying to brute force your way through conversations with new people, practice on smaller easier situations first.
· Maybe you practice having casual chit-chat with some coworkers/ community friends who you’re familiar with.
· Then, once you feel a little more confident, try initiating conversations with waiters or checkout clerks at the store — new people but where the stakes are lower.
Getting better at dealing with big, painful emotions is a skill like anything else. Which means it makes sense to practice in a similar way as you do any other skill in life: Start small and slowly work your way up as you gain both competence and confidence.
Not only this help you get better at managing whatever difficult emotion you struggle with, but it will also help cultivate a healthier relationship with difficult emotions generally.
Because when your mind sees you habitually approaching, rather than avoiding difficult feelings, it stops viewing them as threats and dangers.
And in the long run, that’s where true emotional strength comes from — learning to be compassionate, not combative, with our feelings.