February 17, 2020

It’s Time to Talk about Difficult Emotions

Mental Health & Wellbeing

I remember one of the conversations that we had at the dinner table with my parents, when we moved to the United States. My parents were surprised at how nice and happy everyone seemed. They even joked around that when you receive a traffic violation, police will write a ticket with a smile and tell you to have a nice day. This made me think about the role of emotions in our culture and my experiences. We live in a high pace society today where we are consistently focused on the next job, trend, idea, relationship, etc. As a result, we can encounter difficult emotions such as anger, confusion, fear, loneliness, shame, guilt, just to list a few. Emotions like these are powerful and often we may find ourselves lacking language to describe these experiences.

When my mom would ask me about my day or had any specific questions, as a teenager, my default answer was, “I don’t know.” Sometimes, I would say, “I don’t know,” so that I could be left alone. Other times, I truly had no idea how I felt. When we walk into the store and the cashier asks, “how are you?” without hesitation our answer is, “okay” or “I’m fine.” I’ve never heard anyone say, “I’m not doing well.” Why? Because that would be breaking social norms. That would create a moment of awkwardness, and we don’t like being uncomfortable. So… we say, “I’m fine,” and move on. This creates a challenge when we encounter difficult emotions and don’t know what to do. We can pretend that everything is fine, ignore it and hope it goes away. However, eventually,, it will come back like an avalanche sweeping everything in its path. That being said, how do we deal with difficult emotions?

Practicing Acceptance of Emotions

The first step in dealing with difficult emotions is recognizing the emotions that we’re feeling. It may be helpful to set aside 5 minutes each day in which you reflect on your emotions. Once you become aware of the emotion you’re experiencing, notice where in your body you feel it. You may notice a knot in your stomach, the pounding of your heart, pressure in your chest, tightening in your throat, etc.; simply notice where in your body you experience the emotion.

After you become aware of the emotion, get to know it. Don’t push it away. Sit with this loneliness, anger, confusion, or whatever emotion you’re encountering. If this emotion becomes too difficult, get up and walk around. It’s important that we don’t ignore it or push away. When we ignore our emotions, it’s like shaking a bottle of pop. Eventually, you will open the bottle and it will splatter everywhere. Get to know your emotions. Listen to your difficult emotions. They are trying to help you with recognizing that something is out of balance in your life before major crisis occurs.

Identify and Label the Emotion

After you recognize where the emotion resides in your body, it may be helpful to identify which emotion you’re experiencing (Below you will find a “Feelings Wheel” that may help with identifying emotions). It may help to practice here a simple language tip such as, “this is anxiety” instead of, “I am anxious.” In this way, you’re acknowledging the presence of anxiety and simultaneously maintaining a distance. You’re recognizing the presence of the emotion without attaching the label to yourself. It may be helpful to identify the emotion like, “this is fear that I am experiencing. I don’t know what will happen, but I am just going to be present with it.” Experiencing difficult emotions will be challenging, however, in this way you are staying focused on the present moment without getting trapped in the past.

Practicing Self-Compassion

When you are experiencing a difficult emotion such as fear, sadness, anger, grief, etc., don’t push it away. Acknowledging and compassionately accepting difficult emotions gives us an opportunity to get to know ourselves better. So, how do we extend compassion towards ourselves? Imagine your friend is having a difficult time. They come to confide in you. What would you say to your friend who is having a difficult time? Now, see if you can extend that compassion toward yourself: “I’ve done everything I could have done. I did my best.” We can be difficult on ourselves. Practicing compassion and extending kindness towards yourself can be powerful in helping with self-soothing, getting to know what is taking place within you, and empowering yourself to overcome these challenges.

As you continue to practice, you will begin to recognize that you are not your sadness, anger, fear, and so on. Instead, you will begin to experience your emotions in a fleeting matter, just like an ocean wave comes and goes. Recognize that these emotions are not permanent. They arise within us for a period and then disappear. It’s hard to keep this in mind when you’re in the middle of the storm. Give yourself permission to witness and observe your emotions without labeling them as, “good” or, “bad.” Simply observe with curiosity and kindness.

Recognize Triggers

After you’ve been able to calm and self-soothe from difficult emotions, take a moment to understand and explore what happened. You may want to ask yourself:

  • What caused me to feel this way?
  • Where in my body do I feel this emotion?
  • What was it about this situation that made me feel this way?
  • What do I need when I feel this way?
  • If this emotion could have a voice, what would it want me to know?

Giving yourself permission to be inquisitive about difficult emotions and your experience may help you gain empathy and insight into what you’re experiencing.

We all experience a wide range of emotions almost daily. They play significant roles in our well-being. When we learn to pay attention to our emotions, we’re able to make adjustments and live a more fulfilling life. However, when we mask our emotions and push them away, we end up compromising significant parts of ourselves. It may be challenging to work through difficult emotions on your own. We are here to help you to explore these emotions, develop coping strategies, and support you through this process. Give us a call, and schedule your appointment today!

Written by therapist Viktor Terpay

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