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What to Know About Difficult Emotions and How to Deal With Them

Pain. Confusion. Anger. Fear. Insecurity. Not feelings 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 uncomfortable 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.

I suspect what usually makes these emotions even more difficult is the judgment 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.

Three things to know about difficult emotions:

1. Come to terms with the reality that you will, at times, have difficult feelings, and it will, at times, be extremely uncomfortable.

And that’s OK. 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 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.

2. You can’t selectively numb.

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” or “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 struggling or have struggled with a mental illness 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 the cause of this 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.

3. No feeling is final, and feelings aren’t facts.

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 (for example, suicidal feelings). Knowing the feeling won’t last forever can help us endure it in that moment. Instead of digging our feet in and trying to shield ourselves from the feelings, we can instead ride the wave.

What to do in the moment? Ride the wave.

This concept comes from a type of therapy called dialectical behavior therapy (DBT), which 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 — letting ourselves feel the emotion without judgment — 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, and so on (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:

1. Take a break.

Don’t try to continue with whatever task you were doing or conversation you were having. Taking actions in the moment based on these intense emotions is not a great idea, and often escalates instead of calms. For example, continuing the conversation and it escalating into a full-on fight.

2. Slow things down.

You don’t have to figure exactly why you’re feeling what you’re feeling in this very moment. Instead, attend to your in-the-moment needs, especially comforting and soothing tools.

3. Intentionally set the emotion aside.

It can be helpful to more explicitly acknowledge the emotion and then reassure yourself that you will attend to it later. Something is coming up for me, and I’m feeling intensely. However, I’m not in a time or place to give this the attention it deserves. Instead, like placing a treasured item into a box for safekeeping until later, I am going to set this emotion aside until I have the time and safety to do so. You can even try visualizing it. Imagine yourself scooping up the emotion and placing it into whatever container seems appropriate, reassuring yourself that you will get to it.

Big and intense feelings are hard. But as Glennon Doyle says, “we can do hard things.” And I will be all the better for it! Facing these feelings, letting ourselves feel them and 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.

Here are some questions to reflect on either in the moment (if able) or later:

1. 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?

2. 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 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 and sensations associated with it) are a pattern or related to painful or traumatic aspects of your past.

3. 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.

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!

Pexels Photo via Nick Demou

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