Part one of a series exploring difficult emotions and how to cope with them.
Images via Unsplash
Intro: No Bad Feelings
We tend to be conditioned to believe that there are 'good' feelings and 'bad' feelings - and I can absolutely see why, I mean, who wants to feel disappointment, frustration or misery? We call them bad because they feel unpleasant when we experience them and it's only natural to want to avoid or remove pain and discomfort.
But when we call certain emotions bad or negative we create some problems for ourselves; firstly we might not allow ourselves to feel or express these emotions (suppression/repression) which can leave us feeling stuck, caught in an unhelpful cycle or experiencing physical symptoms. Secondly, we might feel - or even be told - that we are bad for having these feelings. Being shamed, dismissed or ignored because of how we feel, especially when we don't have much control over that, is unkind and unhelpful. Lastly, the more we deny and push away our difficult feelings the less resilient we become to them - we have not opportunity to feel them and be OK.
In this series I want to take a closer look at these 'bad' feelings so we can understand them better and know how to move through them with greater ease.
We'll focus on:
"Boys don't cry" and other b0llocks
You might be realising that you do see some emotions as better than others and wonder why that is and where those value judgements come from. There can be multiple reasons for this, here are two common ones:
Societal conditioning - this will depend on the culture you were raised in. For those in the UK, like myself, there are certain ways of expressing or hiding emotions that are encouraged/discouraged. Some of this is gender based, such as "boys don't cry", a message that is taught to male children from a young age which results in men having trouble expressing sadness. It's also common for women to be conditioned to be polite and sweet, which can lead to suppression of anger.
Family culture and childhood experiences - in addition to the wider society we grow up in, we will all have individual experiences that shape the way we relate to our feelings and the emotional habits we develop. For example if you were consistently praised for being quiet and no trouble as a child then you may create a narrative about yourself that makes it difficult to speak up or not be OK.
What are emotions?
This is a big question but I thought it would be helpful to give at lease a brief answer so we're coming at these 'negative' emotions from a place of curiosity and emotional intelligence. Emotions are physiological events; energy, neurochemicals and hormones moving through the body. Emotions allow us to make meaning of the world, create relationships and explain our experience of the world around us. Our emotional range is what makes us human and all emotions have a purpose and place in our lives - whether we like it or not!
If we're not feeling all our feelings, we're not connecting to others fully or living authentically.
Emotions are real and valid but they are not facts. Just because we feel rejected, for example, doesn't mean someone actually rejected us - they could just have been busy, not in the mood or didn't understand what we needed. This is why learning to identify, observe and understand our feelings - something we do a lot of in counselling or therapy - is so important.
Mind your language!
It may seem like a little thing when we use words like 'bad' or 'negative' to label our feelings, but language is powerful. Just by changing what we say to 'difficult emotions' instead, we are removing stigma and acknowledging that we are suffering in some way. It's more accurate to say an emotion is pleasant/unpleasant, pleasurable/painful - these are descriptors of your experience of that emotion, rather than judgements.
General dos and don'ts for difficult emotions
In this blog series I'm going to focus on particular feelings and how we can cope better with them, but there are some practices, mindsets and techniques that are useful for any painful emotion. This guidance is based on mindfulness and talking therapies such as CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy) and CFT (compassion focused therapy).
Do: Name it to tame it
This technique was coined by Dr Dan Siegel and refers to the simple yet effective practice of identifying our emotions in order to reduce their intensity. Naming what we are feeling gives us a moment of awareness about what is going on for us and then leads us into choices about how to handle it.
An intense emotion can feel overwhelming and mental health problems can be very serious indeed....and yet, when we react strongly to the presence of an emotion we add on a problem that doesn't need to be there, such as feeling anxious about being anxious. Seeing a feeling as just a temporary emotional weather pattern that is moving through you helps to change your relationship to that feeling. The technique RAINN can help you do that.
Do: learn to ride the waves
The aim is not to 'get rid' of the difficult feeling but to move through it with less resistance and more self compassion. As emotions are part of being human, resisting them is as effective as standing in the ocean and trying to fight the waves coming towards you; doing this is exhausting and pointless. Allowing yourself to soften and be moved by the waves, concentrating on keeping breathing, is far more helpful. It's very similar with emotions! Learning to do this is a skill and you might need some guidance from a mindfulness teacher or counsellor.
"You can't stop the waves but you can learn how to surf" - Jon Kabat Zinn
Don't: keep it all to yourself
As previously mentioned, bottling up our feelings and pretending we don't feel bad when we do never ends well. It's important to find people you can trust to talk to. If it feels very daunting then start with something small and see how that goes, then build up to sharing more. You can ask people "I'm not feeling great - can I talk to you about it?" to check if the other person is OK to listen to you. More tips on how to talk and listen here.
Ultimately, being emotionally well requires us to be able to recognise and regulate our feelings. This is a skill that we can all learn and improve on with some education, support and practice.
Look out for the next posts in this series focusing on specific difficult emotions and how we can cope better.
Thank you for reading - take good care of yourself!