I’m a small-town California girl turned mental health therapist. Favorite things: babies (but don’t have my own!), comfy pants, and taking too many pictures. I'm all about realistic self-care, mental health for everyone, and personal growth even if you hate that phrase (cause I do!).
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Pain. Confusion. Anger. Fear. Insecurity.
Not feelings that I particularly enjoy––and I’m guessing you don’t either.
We’re not alone in that. As a culture, we spend a lot of energy trying to avoid these and other difficult feelings, using various addictions, numbing, or thrill-seeking options to keep them at bay. The rule, whether spoken or unspoken, is clear: don’t feel. As a result, we don’t know how to deal with these feelings.
I suspect that what usually makes these emotions even more difficult is the self-judgement we place on ourselves (Why am I feeling this way? This is so stupid!) or the confusion we can feel in the middle of an emotional wave.
What if, instead of avoiding difficult emotions, we practiced dealing with emotions in a way that makes them less scary and helps us grow into the people we want to be?
Let’s walk through some important things to know about emotions, and then how to respond to an intense emotional moment.
And that’s okay. It’s part of being human, actually. We have the capacity to feel a wide range of all different kinds of emotions. Even “happy” people will tell you that the real joy is in the spectrum, not in avoiding. For a full, satisfying life, we need the ups and downs, the highs and lows (within reason). That’s what makes life interesting, meaningful, and vibrant.
When you push down, shut down, avoid, or numb difficult feelings, you don’t keep only those feelings out; you also shut yourself off to the more pleasant emotions as well.
There are some understandable reasons you might be avoiding difficult emotions. One reason could be how your family of origin handled difficult emotions. They may have made it clear that emotional expression was not welcome, and you would be shamed for showing them. This could sound like, “stop crying,” “I was just kidding,” “It’s not a big deal,” “get over it.”
Another reason is if a healthy emotional range wasn’t modeled to you by parents. Not seeing an adult manage various emotions can make us fear the more difficult emotions.
Experiencing either a traumatic event or prolonged trauma (including interpersonal trauma) can also cause us to numb our emotions. Numbing is often a way to survive these experiences, especially as children without other coping tools.
Lastly, if you are/have struggled with a or disorder, you may experience emotional numbing. We do this either as a way of protection from the disorder or as a symptom of the disorder itself. This is because mood and/or anxiety disorders can cause overwhelming and consuming feelings on a repeated basis. As a way to cope, you may start to avoid those feelings altogether (either consciously or not). Additionally, one of the main symptoms of a depressive disorder can be emotional numbness.
Understanding cause of the numbing can help us find a helpful solution. No matter the cause, moving towards a less numb state is an important part of healing and growth.
This can be hard to believe in the midst of those big emotions. Trust me, I get it. But even the worst feelings will eventually pass and subside, even if that means seeking immediate support for the feelings (ie suicidal feelings). Knowing the feeling won’t last forever can help us endure it in the moment. Instead of digging our feet in and trying to shield ourselves from the feelings, we can instead ride the wave.
This concept comes from a type of therapy called DBT (Dialectical Behavior Therapy) that is specifically aimed at helping deal with these big, overwhelming feelings or thoughts.
Riding the wave means acknowledging the feeling will pass, just as big waves do. It also means that riding the wave (ie letting ourselves feel the emotion without judgement), will ultimately be better for us. Lastly, it means not getting fully swept away by the emotion. Sometimes a strong emotion can have a strong thought attached to it, and that thought might cause us to want to act. For example, I might find myself really annoyed and frustrated during a conversation with my partner. The frustration (feeling) is attached to thinking “he always wants me to do the dishes,” which might make me want to yell, not do the dishes at all, etc etc (action). Part of riding the wave of our emotion is interrupting this connection between thought, emotion, and action, and holding off on taking any action instead. Rather than acting, I can acknowledge the feeling, and explore the thought or belief attached to it.
But it’s not always that simple, right? Sometimes a strong emotion wreaks havoc on our ability to think. That’s not just you, it’s part of the ways we neurologically and physiologically respond to difficult emotions.
When that happens, here’s what to do as you ride the wave of emotion in the moment:
Big and intense feelings are hard. But as Glennon Doyle says, we can do hard things. And I be all the better for it! Facing these feelings, letting ourselves feel them, riding the wave is difficult, and can be extremely painful. But it’s the soul work that brings beautiful fruit. Not always immediately. And not always without professional help, but ease and healing are possible.
Feel it with curiosity. Rather than that cruel self-talk (“Come on, get it together! Why are you freaking out?”), be curious about your feelings. What does the emotion feel like, what thoughts are you having with it, and where do you feel it in your body? When are other times I have felt this way? Does it feel familiar?
Acknowledge and investigate it with compassion. Once you have uncovered more of the emotion, it helps to name it. “I’m feeling anger” or “this emotion is sadness.” Acknowledging the emotion with compassion means that we face it with acceptance, rather than ignoring it, judging it, trying to control or change it. Giving words to our emotions helps them seem less nebulous and out of control. It helps us categorize and make sense of them, even on a neurological level. You may need to do more processing of the emotion, such as journaling, talking with a trusted person, or in therapy, especially if the emotion (or thoughts + sensations associated with it) are a pattern or related to painful or traumatic aspects of your past.
Let it pass. Since no feeling is final, and our feelings aren’t facts, we can let the emotion pass. We can take whatever we have learned from the emotion, leave the rest, and then move forward.
To help you break this down even further, I created a worksheet that walks you through each step of this reflection process. You can find it here or clicking the image below.
Do you already use some of these practices in your own life? What have you learned about dealing with emotions, either in the moment or later? I’d love to hear from you!
by Kylie |
January 23, 2019
I'm Kylie. I’m a small-town California girl turned mental health therapist. Favorite things: babies (but don’t have my own!), comfy pants, and taking too many pictures. I'm all about realistic self-care, mental health for everyone, and personal growth even if you hate that phrase (cause I do!).