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How to deal with difficult emotions

Updated: Aug 31, 2021

Yes this is going to be tough, but it needs talking about...

Ach, I have so much to say on this. I think we are taught so badly as a society how to do with this - we are not taught tools for managing emotions! I see this initially in the young people in the secondary school I teach in, and ultimately recognise the same issues in some of the statistics; the levels of male suicide, and escalating mental health problems deep-rooted in our society and escalated by the pandemic.

First of all, I don’t offer solutions. I cannot offer a one-size fits all method. Because that would be a lie and unhelpful and not serve you. What I can offer is my own learning around emotions and how understanding and processing them have helped me. I share my experience not as a researcher but as a human who struggles just like you (recognising that our struggles might not be of the exact same nature)

How are you feeling right now? What words would you use to describe your emotions? According to a piece of research, a lot of us identify with just three states ‘happy’, ‘sad’ and ‘pissed’! Many of us would also add other emotions; overwhelmed, stressed, hopeful, discouraged, connected.

1. Recognise and label

If you were to imagine writing these words down, don’t turn the page over. You don’t need to force a sense of gratitude or positivity. Other people’s comfort is not more important than your emotions (this is where the idea of toxic positivity fits in).

With some of our emotions, we might need to get more granular - which means identify the specific emotion. For instance, we might think we feel angry; but maybe we actually feel scared, or disappointed, or mistrustful or misunderstood. We might think we feel overwhelmed, but we might actually feel emotionally exhausted, overcommitted, or unsafe.

When we become more granular with our emotions, we have more perspective and space around how to process and act. You can focus on the serving the true need of yourself. When I am feeling ‘overwhelmed’, if I actually recognise that I am feeling exhausted or unsafe, I might choose to rest in a quiet room instead of trying to push through my to-do list (because getting it all done might stop the feeling of ‘overwhelm’.).

2. Create linguistic and mental space

Rather than identifying with the emotion, ‘I am anxious’, create the space around the feeling. ‘I notice that I am feeling anxious’ offers a way to experience the emotion that doesn’t define you. You as a human, are whole, complete, peaceful and joyful; and for those that scoff at that, I get you. But you are the sky and your thoughts and emotions are clouds across the sky. You do not have to jump into every cloud.

Meditation (done consistently and over time) offers a powerful way to change the relationship with our thoughts and emotions in this way. Remember, if this is something that interests you, start small! Our thoughts and feelings will jump all over the place as we begin; just start with two minutes and focus on your breath.

3. Signposting

Your emotions act as signposts for our values. If we are angry at work, maybe it’s because we have a sense of injustice. If we are sad at the way a friend has been treated, it might mean we value connection, or honesty or respect. If we feel lonely or grief, it might be signposting our desire to love. Our emotions guide us, they are there for a reason.

What might your emotions be signposting?

Please remember this is a practice, and these ideas can be difficult to visualize being put easily into practice. But like driving a car, which felt like a million and one things to think about when we started, we start to become more comfortable with the processes and actions until they even become automatic. Same here. Being with difficult emotions and employing these tools will always feel hardest at the start.

4. Focus on the physical sensation

This links a little into completing the stress cycle I was discussing last week. Sometimes we feel that if we lean into an emotion, that it will never end. So we don’t go there. If we start crying, we’ll never stop. If we let ourselves feel lonely or sad, we might get stuck there. And it is possible to get stuck in that tunnel of our emotion if we perpetuate the thoughts that’s feeding the emotion.

But emotions have a beginning, a middle and an end. So instead, can we focus on the physical sensation within our body? Where does that emotion sit? Is it heaviness in the heart or chest? When we cry, what are the physical sensations? By focusing on the sensation within our bodies, without focusing on the thoughts that might be feeding that emotion, we can allow our bodies to process and release it.

Please note that when we sit with difficult emotions, we don’t fix them. You don’t need fixing. We will always feel difficult emotions when we are alive, it is part of the human experience. They won’t ever go away and you won’t ever be perpetually positive and happy all the time. Please don’t think the goal is to silence them.

When we numb our negative emotions (and common ways to do this include scrolling on social media, shopping, eating, alcohol and drugs, TV etc), we also numb the positive emotions. By numbing pain, we also numb joy. By allowing yourself to feel the difficult emotions that we can also fully experience the positive ones. Joy and gratitude and hope become full and blossom and become a true physical experience for us also.

As humans, we should feel and process a full spectrum of emotions; with space, compassion and being able to release them without getting stuck.

Embrace the mess.

Embrace the tragedy.

Embrace the full struggle.

And in that, you are still enough.

You are whole.

If you are going through or have been through something and are struggling please reach out to professional. If you would like to learn more about the research behind emotional agility:

Book: Emotional Agility by Dr Susan David


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