Difficult Emotions Aren’t Your Enemy
Difficult Emotions Aren’t Your Enemy
Confession: I’m not the emotionally even keeled person there ever was. I tend to react quickly and intensely to situations, and I’m the queen of raising the drawbridge and refusing to let anyone in when I’m experiencing a challenging emotional situation or feeling vulnerable. This has gotten better as I’ve gotten older and become more sure of myself as a person and a mother, but there are still times when stress and life get the best of me, and I react in ways I’m not proud of. And when this happens, it’s usually a nasty cycle of just reinforcing the guilt or fear that I was experiencing and making it more intense (nothing like yelling at your kids because you’re feeling overwhelming mom guilt to make you feel even more mom guilt). Eventually, I just shut down and spend a couple of days in bed sleeping and avoiding all adult responsibilities, which just puts the shame and guilt into a bigger spiral. And I know I’m not alone. I’ve talked to enough other people about this — both parents and those who don’t have children — to know that difficult emotions are just that, difficult. And while our natural reaction may be to hide from them, numb them or do anything but embrace them, this may be just the thing that’s keeping us stuck where we are.
What Society Tells Us About Difficult Emotions
All it takes is a 30-second scroll through Instagram to see a half-dozen quotes on being strong and never letting anyone or anything get to you. Social media, magazines and even the T-shirts sold at major retailers all have variations of the same messages: Be tough. Get over it. Boss up. Or worse yet, they make light of addictions to food and alcohol as ways to cope with anything remotely uncomfortable in life. It will all be OK as long as you can make it to that 5 p.m. wine glass, right? Maybe not so much. While society may be telling us that it’s normal to just walk the other way with our fingers in our ears when we come up against something difficult, normal isn’t always healthy.
While a little “life is hard, keep going” is important, it’s just as important to be self-aware of the barriers we put up and the negative coping mechanisms we use to numb ourselves. Here are just a few of the common responses people have to challenging emotions like fear, shame, uncertainty and confusion.
- Blaming others. Refusing to take any responsibility for a situation that leads to a difficult emotion keeps it firmly out there in someone else’s world and means that you’re just a victim instead of an active participant in your life who has power and can make a difference.
- Judging others. It’s a lot easier to avoid things you may be doing in your own life to contribute to a situation if you’re focused on how everyone else is screwing up.
- Isolating. In many cases, difficult emotions come up in relationships with other people. Whether it’s a significant other, a family member or even a friend, avoiding the person, refusing to communicate and stonewalling is a very effective way of avoiding any feelings whatsoever.
- Numbing through the use of alcohol, drugs or escapism. While drug and alcohol addiction may be one of the most well-known ways of numbing and escaping challenging emotional situations, things like binge-watching Netflix, burying yourself in a mobile game for the weekend or escaping through social media are also all problematic when being used to actively avoid a situation.
You see, as much as we’d like for it not to be the case, difficult emotions and challenging times are really the key transformational periods in our lives, and if we choose to gloss over — or straight up ignore — them, we’re protecting ourselves from temporary discomfort but we’re also missing a huge chance to grow and evolve as people.
Trying a Different Approach
What if, instead of hiding or avoiding or numbing, we accepted that feeling these difficult emotions was just part of life (not good or bad, just existing) and chose to embrace them and the vulnerability they cause? While it may seem counter-intuitive, I’ve found through experience that the only way through these situations is just this: to sit in the emotions and give myself permissions to feel them. If that means I cry, I cry. If that means I need to give myself some time to feel the fear and let my mind go through worst-case scenarios, that’s what I do. Because when I’m willing to be open and vulnerable and recognize that I don’t have it figured out (not even close) and don’t have to, that’s when I’m able to finally breathe and start getting through the emotions.
Here’s what I think: When we avoid those uncomfortable feelings and try to get around them, we give them more power over us. But when we take a deep breath, give ourselves (and those around us) permission to not know what to do next or be imperfect, that’s when we take our power back. And that first bit of power is the first step in dealing with those challenging emotions, learning from them and facing the future without the past holding us back.
Katelynne has been trying to get the hang of this raising kids thing since 2007 but spends most of her time wondering who stole her copy of Parenting 101. When she’s not playing referee for her two children or writing all the words, she fantasizes about a full night’s sleep, uninterrupted showers, and triple venti caramel macchiatos with coconut milk.