This is by far the question I'm asked most by my clients and followers. It's also one of my favourite topics to speak about.
You see, before became a therapist, coach and self-development geek, I also struggled against my emotions. I'd resist each wave of feeling as if my life depended on it. I'd say things like:
"I don't understand why I'm feeling so anxious"
"Why can't I just get over it?!"
"Other people have it worse than me, I should be able to handle this"
I know how frustrating it can be not knowing how to help yourself. To be really unsure about even where to begin.
If you can hear yourself in those phrases - I've got you. This post is the first in a series that will help you to master your emotions in a sustainable way.
In this first post, I'll be breaking down why we struggle with our emotions on a pretty regular basis. The post will help you to have compassion for yourself as you navigate your moods, rather than beat yourself up for having them in the first place!
We aren't taught about our emotions, but we learn about them in one way or another
Now it's a little while since I've been at school but hearing from teachers and parents more recently, it seems as though emotional wellbeing is still low on the list of priorities within early education.
We aren't taught that anxiety can make our hearts race and turn our palms sweaty. We aren't taught that it's normal that our moods fluctuate over the course of a day. And we definitely aren't taught that trying to avoid emotions makes them difficult to deal with.
Emotions can be tricky to deal with but sometimes they can be really straightforward.
In high school and even university, if I knew that the presence of anxiety didn't mean I should avoid life and hide in my bedroom, I could have side-stepped a lot of self-criticism and shame.
If I'd had access to simple breathing exercises, I might have been able to deal with my anxious feelings and continue moving forward.
You might have had a similar experience and level of frustration at many different points in your life.
However, even though we aren't explicitly taught about our feelings, we learnt a lot from those around us while we're growing up. When you were a child did you hear:
"You need to be more positive"
"Cheer up, worse things can happen!"
"Stop being so sensitive"
While the intent behind these statements is often good, they send the message that emotions are something that we can control. Hearing this can make you feel bad and ultimately blame yourself for not coping.
It's not your fault that you weren't taught about your emotions. It's totally understandable why you numb out or distract yourself to avoid dealing with your feelings. Now you can start to teach yourself about how to deal with difficult emotions (starting with this series!)
Our brain physiology can struggle to gauge an appropriate response to common situations
One of my favourite books on this topic is "The Compassionate Mind Approach to Difficult Emotions" by Chris Irons. In this book, he goes into a lot of depth about the evolution of our brains and how this can trip us up emotionally.
Our brains have old brain competencies and new brain competencies. The old ones are similar to those in other animals - they include behaviours and motives such as the fight-flight response, avoiding harm and seeking safety. The new competencies refer to our ability to imagine, plan, self-monitor and ruminate.
Chris Irons talks about how we can get stuck in old brain-new brain loops where a new brain competency triggers an old brain response. This is why our emotions can be triggered quickly and intensely.
Our brain doesn't realise that messing up a work presentation or being left out of the group chat isn't a threat to our safety and therefore doesn't require that intense fight-or-flight response.
The fact that your brain works in this way is not your fault.
One of my favourite things about this book is that Chris highlights that while our responses aren't our own doing, they are our responsibility to manage.
It's tempting to examine the science and think that it's hopeless. That our efforts won't be able to make any difference on these innate responses. But this simply isn't true.
There are many ways to learn how to manage your emotions better and lots of strategies you can utilise - which we will dive into later in this series!
Sitting with difficult emotions isn't a walk in the park
Let's just be real - feeling anxious, overwhelmed, ashamed or low is pretty shit! They aren't nice emotions to make space for. If they were, we'd be welcoming them with open arms.
It's totally understandable that you want to avoid feeling them at all costs. Every single client I've ever worked with has been the same.
But as with most things in life, just because something is difficult doesn't mean it isn't worth doing.
What we do know is that pushing emotions down doesn't make them go away. In a meta-analysis conducted by Aldoa et al (2010) they found that coping strategies such as avoidance, rumination and suppression are likely to be related to the presence of mental health issues.
So it's well worth your time to develop your skills in tolerating and accepting difficult emotions.
It's also beneficial to see it as a journey. You won't get to a certain point where these emotions no longer bother you.
I know a lot about managing my emotions but I still have days where I avoid them and do anything but dealing with them (scrolling on social media is my favourite distraction technique).
This isn't another thing to beat yourself up over. In fact, being compassionate towards yourself is part of the work as well.
Please know that struggling with your emotions is understandable and expected, but it doesn't mean that doesn't mean you have to resign yourself to the struggle.
Simply by reading this blog post, you have taken a huge step in learning how to manage your feelings.
The next post in the series will help you to develop your skills in emotional regulation (fancy terminology for managing your emotions).
If you have any questions, drop them in the comments below.
This blog post series has been informed by the following references:
Aldoa, A., Nolen-Hoeksema, S., & Schweizer, S. (2010). Emotion-regulation strategies across psychopathology: A meta-analytic review. Clinical psychology review, 30(2), 217-237.
Brackett, M., (2019). Permission to Feel: Unlock the power of emotions to help yourself and your children thrive. Hachette; UK.
Hanson, R. (2018). Resilient: 12 tools for transforming everyday experiences into lasting happiness. Random House; UK.
Irons, C. (2019). The Compassionate Mind Approach to Difficult Emotions using compassion focused therapy. Robinson; UK.
Lieberman, M. D., Eisenberger, N. I., Crockett, M. J., Tom, S. M., Pfeifer, J. H. and Way, B. M. (2007). Putting feelings into words. Psychological science, 18(5), 421-428.
Pennebaker, J. W. (1997). Writing about emotional experiences as a therapeutic process. Psychological science, 8(3),162-166.