I've had a few things on my mind lately, as I seem to keep hearing the same challenges that many of clients are having. "I hate feeling sad" is a common statement that I have been hearing more than usual, and I keep wondering why there is so much reluctance to allow ourselves to feel negative emotions. The reality of it is that society places so much emphasis on this "American Dream" that involves having everything that you ever wanted and just being happy all the time. What society is doing is creating this façade that makes us think that there is something wrong with us if we feel anxiety, depression or anger. But if everyone experiences these emotions throughout their lifetime, does that really mean that there is something wrong with everyone? Absolutely not!
I've been doing a lot of reading lately on this concept of striving for infinite happiness, and I have come to determine that this does not actually exist. People often portray parts of their lives that are happy and hide the parts of life that are hard or unpleasant. What this does is it makes their friends and family think that they "have it all together" or "are always just so happy" and begin to question their own struggles with life stressors. Ultimately this creates more depression or anxiety, and a general sense of "What is wrong with me?"
So then we start to avoid these negative feelings. We may pick up a bad coping habit, such as smoking, overeating or drinking alcohol. And then we start to use it as a crutch. "Oh, this makes me feel better" or "Yeah, this helps me deal with stress so that I don't have to feel it". But what happens after those effects wear off? You're still left with your original problem, compounded with a now unhealthy coping skill that creates even more stress in your life. And on and on the cycle goes.
So what do we do to stop it? How can we lose this unrealistic goal of having the perfect and happy life that just doesn't seem to exist? The only way out is through. You MUST allow yourself to feel the negative feelings. Is it going to suck? Yep. Is it going to be uncomfortable? Absolutely. Is it going to be worth it? You bet. Let's go deeper.
If we look at why we avoid negative emotions we start to understand how we can change these patterns. Usually it's that feeling of being uncomfortable that comes with the negative emotion that we won't like. We also don't like putting ourselves in a vulnerable position that someone can take advantage of. I personally hate showing emotions in front of others. I think the only people that have really seen me cry are my mom, my husband and my therapist. So, believe me when I say I get the struggle, because this is something that I'm working on myself as well.
But what if we just allowed ourselves to feel those emotions? What if we gave ourselves permission to feel without judgement? What if we came to a place where we could accept ourselves as we are: human beings who feel all types of things? I think that it is important to understand that there is nothing wrong or abnormal to feel upset or sad about something. There is also nothing wrong with labelling that emotion as what it is. If we name something, we can take away its power. If we name something, we can understand the why behind it and let it play out. Not sure where to start? Here are five things that I have found to be helpful in dealing with negative emotions.
Find a safe space. Worried about being vulnerable in a place that does not support your emotions? Sometimes we have to create a space for ourselves that allows us to think and feel freely. This might be a place in your home, a place out in public, a therapist's office, or a place you create in your mind. Whatever it is, you need to make sure that it is somewhere you can go anytime you need to process tough emotions.
Call it out. There's a certain empowerment we get when we can call out what we are feeling. It can be as simple as saying we are happy, sad, anxious, angry. Or you can go even deeper and name the feeling that is causing the basic emotion. Frustration, loneliness, hurt, confused, excited, worried, etc. If you need some help with this, you can find a list of emotions here. You can even go as far as to identify how this feeling is affecting your physical state. Many times anxiety can show up in physical symptoms such as shakiness, racing heart or dizziness.
Find the trigger. Often times our emotions are influenced by our thoughts, and our thoughts are influenced by a trigger. This can be a past experience that we had that trigger negative thinking or make us feel unsafe. Identifying our triggers won't necessarily make them go away, but it can help us process how they influence our thoughts and emotions.
Accept the emotion in real time. You can say "I'm feeling sad right now. It's uncomfortable, but I can and will get through it." Allowing ourselves to feel the emotion helps build resilience by showing ourselves that we can handle it. It shows us that even though we are uncomfortable right now, we can find our way through the feeling and come out stronger on the other side. This is often what mindfulness is centered in. Building resilience is something that we all need in order to cope with stressors in our everyday lives.
Do something about it. Once we have allowed ourselves to feel and process our emotions, we need to come up with a strategy to get to the other side. Sitting in negative emotions too long can be hurtful for us, so use your judgement and know when it is time to do something. As I always say, physical activity can be helpful in coping with stressful feelings. Once you are ready, go outside for a walk or run. If it is a person that has upset you, have an open and honest conversation with them to try to resolve the disagreement. Figure out what you need to do to heal and move on.
Although this is not an exhaustive list of what to do when you find yourself feeling difficult emotions, this is a good start in becoming more self-aware. I always say that therapy is for anyone and everyone that is willing to work on overcoming their challenges and becoming more resilient. I talk to my clients about these topics frequently, and I always stress that they not compare themselves to others in their progress.
How do you deal with your tough emotions? Comment below with your thoughts!
Until next time, Be Well and Wag On!