How to deal with difficult emotions

How To Deal With Difficult Emotions

A couple of weeks ago, my therapist started asking me to set goals for how I want to start thinking, feeling and behaving differently. Coupled with the current crisis, this has had me thinking a lot lately about how to deal with difficult emotions. How I want to feel, and how to have more agency when negative emotions crop up. To paraphrase the great Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman: feelings. Slippery little fuckers.  

Then I listened to Brené Brown’s recent podcast with Dr. Marc Brackett on giving ourselves ‘Permission To Feel’. That’s the title of Brackett’s book, which shines a light on his work as a research psychologist and the Founding Director of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence at Yale University. This podcast really resonated with me. For years now, I’ve realised that my emotions have been hindering me in many aspects of life. A nagging frustration that I’m not realising my potential rears its head time and again. I’ve always condemned myself as being far too emotional, considered myself to be someone who feels things too deeply, and too much. But I haven’t understood exactly what the issues are, and how to start tackling them. And even now that I’m in therapy, and on medication, I find myself struggling with old patterns of negative thought and behaviour. Stress, anxiety, overwhelm, low self-esteem, self-criticism and so on. 

All the feels

This conversation helped to reassure me how very normal that is. Speaking of – anyone else reduced to an emotional wreck while watching Normal People?! I digress. It was also a great reminder that I’m far from alone. As Brackett pointed out, we don’t get taught how to recognise, understand and regulate our emotions in school, or university. We learn how to read books, but not ourselves, or each other. We don’t learn emotional literacy. Brackett suggests that when people don’t realise their potential, it’s often not because of their capabilities, but because of their lack of ability to deal with the feelings that come with them. For example, negative feedback, criticism, or not achieving the grade that you hoped to on an exam paper. We don’t know how to deal with difficult emotions like disappointment, anger and frustration. And unfelt and unprocessed emotions don’t disappear, or dissipate. Sooner or later, they will catch up with you, and make their presence quite literally felt. Therefore, we have to give ourselves permission to feel, and learn what to do with those emotions. 

Emotions and our  experience 

Because emotions matter. They are integral to our human experience. Brackett defines the five areas where feelings are the most critical as cognitive capacity, decision-making, relationships, mental and physical health, and creativity. Our emotions influence attention, memory and learning. They have a huge impact on the decisions we make. Our ability to form and maintain healthy relationships depends on our emotional intelligence, while how we feel inside sends messages to others via facial expressions and body language. Emotions are integral to our health, vital for our creativity, and they open up opportunities for us to succeed in life. 

And right now, during this time of inevitably heightened emotions, learning how to express and regulate our feelings in a healthy, positive way is more important than ever. Brackett and his team carry out incredible work at schools in the US teaching children and teachers emotional literacy. I hope that this crisis enables us to rethink and reset our priorities, and that emotional literacy becomes something which is widely taught in schools, and prioritised in companies. We can have all the smarts and skills on paper, but without emotional intelligence, we can’t function properly in the world. Brackett’s research found employees are 50% more inspired and 40% less frustrated when their manager has a high level of emotional intelligence. The science and the data demonstrating the value of our feelings cannot be denied. 

Follow the RULER

So how can we learn how to deal with difficult emotions, and our emotions in general? Brackett and his team developed a system called RULER

  • R – recognising emotions. This can be in our thoughts, energy, body, or in the facial expression, voice or body language of others. He suggests pausing to reflect on our feelings, which we don’t often do because we’ve been trained to fake our feelings and mask them. That in itself, however, is emotional labour that we can ill afford 
  • U – understanding. When we can identify and understand the causes of our emotions, and their consequences, we can better determine how to regulate our feelings and behaviours
  • L – labelling emotions with a granular and nuanced vocabulary. For example, are you pleased, happy, ecstatic, content? If you’re afraid, how much fear are you feeling? Being able to clearly define what we are feeling helps us to increase self-awareness, create meaning around our experiences, and communicate our emotions more effectively 
  • E – expression our feelings, in accordance with social contexts and cultural norms. We need to know how and when to display our emotions, depending on who we’re with, the setting and the context. 
  • R – regulating our emotions effectively. This involves monitoring and modifying our emotions in positive and productive ways, in order to achieve goals and wellbeing. That doesn’t mean ignoring negative emotions, but rather learning to accept and deal with them as they come up

Find what feels good

So, thankfully for me and anyone else who sometimes feels like a slave to their emotions, there is hope. I realised that my emotions have been hindering more often than helping because I often haven’t known how to understand and regulate them. Let’s all give ourselves permission to feel, and fail. Because none of this is easy, at the best of times. And we’re definitely not in the best of times. Sometimes I wonder if we’ve become inured to ignoring our true fears and feelings in the spirit of trying to get through this. I’m going to try these tips from Brackett on taking ‘meta moments’, e.g. time to respond to emotions in a healthier way. Simultaneously, I want to avoid the pitfalls of ‘meta emotions’, which are our feelings about our feelings. As I learn how to deal with difficult emotions, such as anxiety, I don’t want to feel ashamed about experiencing them. I also love the thought that if we spend more time doing things we love, we can build our cognitive reserves. Frankly, we could all do with focusing more on what gives us joy! 

Go towards the light 

I’m also going to focus on applying what I’m learning in therapy. I’ve found it helpful to remind myself that while the stress response is completely normal, the reality is, it’s just story that I’m telling myself. Humans are hard-wired to be hyper-vigilant to threats, which is a good thing because it’s what kept us alive. Our negativity bias is built in to keep us safe. The problem is that the dramatic, threat-focused messages that your brain sends can be very seductive. The more we can practise being mindful of that, the more we can focus on identifying, understanding and regulating those emotions. Instead of fighting our feelings, we can learn to accept that our life will have its up and downs. And our emotions most definitely will. 

But as my therapist might say: “Instead of fighting the darkness, go towards the light.” For me, that’s what my Figuring Forward journey is all about. Perhaps my first step will be towards Amazon. I’ve heard about this really great book…

N.B.: if you need help or support with your mental health, please seek it from a qualified professional. Here are some places you can start: 

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