Managing Difficult Emotions
A common theme in my clinical work as a psychotherapist over 33 years, is how people struggle with managing difficult emotions. We are rarely taught how to be with our emotional pain and suffering. Given that Life tends to serve up its fair share of disappointments, tragedies and plain old ‘unfairness’, it is helpful to develop some ideas about working with our emotions when they feel painful and difficult.
Scott M Peck states in his book ‘The Road Less Travelled’ (1978), that the sooner we accept the fact that life is difficult, the happier we will be.
The poet Rumi suggests that “being human is a guest house” and that we should welcome every emotion that comes our way ….
“a joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
As an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still treat each guest honourably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight ……”
I have learnt to be gentle with my emotions over time and non-judgmental of them. Emotions are neither good nor bad, they simply are. They pass me by like wafting, billowing clouds moving silently across the sky. The key I believe is not to be frightened of our emotions, to not panic about the panic, to not be fearful of the fear. In case you think that I may have had a ‘charmed’ life, please know that I have experienced many difficult emotions over the years, involving depression, anxiety and post traumatic stress disorder from experiencing trauma.
So I kind of know what I am talking about.
In my current work I sometimes facilitate a ‘Writing as Therapy’ group which I developed.
An exercise I find to be very successful with clients is this …..
“Think about an emotion you are feeling right now, or have felt in the past. Reflect on it, explore it, think about its colour, its texture, don’t judge it or be frightened of it. Emotions simply are, they are neither good nor bad. Wrote about your emotion using metaphors and description that capture the feeling of the emotion within you. Be as creative as you can be!”
We listen to each other’s writing and honour the person’s experience of that emotion. People learn that emotions in themselves are not harmful. They can be written about, talked about, listened too and their world will not fall apart. Each person may feel the suffering of that emotion, but as they express the many layers of that emotion out loud, the fear of that painful feeling becomes disempowered and a person will not feel so consumed by that particular difficult emotion.
In a society that often insists on “just be positive”, the expressing of difficult emotional states is inhibited and discouraged. Psychologist Susan Jeffers refers to this trend as “the tyranny of relentless positivity” in her book Emotional Agility (2016). Even worse, the expression “toughen up Princess”, has been the source of too much suffering for many men. It is not healthy for any of us to suppress our emotions. This can lead to greater intensity of anxiety, depression, trauma symptoms, addiction and the like.
In her recent book “Untamed’ (2020) Glennon Doyle says,
“Grief shatters. If you let yourself shatter and then you put yourself back together, piece by piece, you wake up one day and realise that you have been completely reassembled. You are whole again, and strong, but you are completely a new shape, a new size. The change that happens to people who really sit in their pain, whether it’s a slice of envy lasting an hour or a canyon of grief lasting decades ….. it’s revolutionary.”
Our mental and emotional health is not improved with a ‘fake it till you make it’ philosophy.
It is improved by an honest expression of our emotions with people that we can trust.
I was at a Christmas function last weekend and a friend sitting next to me shared with me his deep grief over the death of his wife last year. He began crying as he reflected on his loss and his love for her. He apologised for crying because we were out at a happy occasion, drinking cocktails. I reassured him that it was so important he spoke honestly and I was happy to listen. This is ‘real’ Life after all and suffering is a part of it. Tragedy and Joy can hold hands at the same table. I felt nothing but admiration for him being willing to be vulnerable with me and speak authentically.
Let’s do our bit to create safer communities where men and women can drop their defences and be their authentic selves.
Let each of us be a safe person who people can talk with honestly about how they are feeling and not feel frightened of being judged.
And may each of us find ‘our people’ with whom we can talk and feel safe with also.