Most of us react to painful emotions in one of two ways:
- Escape. We try to avoid or outrun our difficult feelings by distracting ourselves—often with something like social media or food. At the extreme end of this strategy, some people are so hell-bent on avoiding difficult feelings that they keep themselves in a constant state of busyness (and stress) so that they never have a minute to be alone with their thoughts and feelings. This is one of the underlying causes of burnout you rarely hear anyone talk about.
- Fix. The other way we tend to react to difficult feelings is to try and fix them and make them go away. Maybe you immediately start telling yourself why it’s silly to feel the way you do—essentially trying to argue your way out of a painful feeling. Or maybe you go right to your “tool belt” of coping strategies and start deep breathing the second you feel anxious or irritated. Or perhaps your go-to fix-it strategy is reassurance-seeking—outsourcing your emotional struggles to someone else.
While these strategies of escape and fix “work” in the short term—i.e. they give some temporary relief—they make difficult emotions harder to manage in the long term.
And the reason is pretty straightforward:
When you constantly try to escape or eliminate your feelings, you teach your brain to see them as enemies.
And if your brain believes its own emotions are bad or dangerous, you’re going to start chronically feeling bad about feeling bad—anxious about feeling sad, angry about feeling anxious, guilty for feeling angry, etc.
The healthier way to manage difficult feelings is to change your relationship with them. Instead of treating painful emotions as enemies to be avoided or eliminated, you can learn to treat them as friends to be understood and accepted.
Here are 4 tips to get you started.
1. Name it to tame it
A healthier relationship with your emotions begins with using better language to talk about them.
Most people have developed an unconscious habit of intellectualizing their emotions—using highly conceptual and vague language to talk about feelings rather than plain straightforward words.
- Your partner forgets to take out the trash despite the fact that you’ve told them several times that you really need more help with household tasks.
- They see that you’re upset and ask what’s wrong?
- Instead of being honest and saying I’m really angry right now you intellectualize and say, Nothing… I’m just stressed.
There are two problems with this:
- Stressed is not an emotion. It’s a concept that includes a range of difficult experiences from thoughts and emotions to physical sensations.
- Stressed is not an accurate description of how you feel. It’s a more socially acceptable way of describing feeling bad. But it’s not an accurate reflection of how you’re actually feeling.
Ironically, research shows that describing our emotions in plain, ordinary language actually helps to decrease their intensity.
Which brings us to tip #1 for learning to live with difficult feelings instead of avoiding them:
Name it to tame it.
When you acknowledge how you’re feeling in plain, simple language, not only does it help reduce the intensity of the feeling, but it also teaches your brain a valuable lesson: emotions aren’t things to be hidden or covered up—they’re a normal, if uncomfortable, part of the human experience. And it’s normal and okay for me to feel them.
2. Just because it feels bad doesn’t mean it is bad
- You’re walking down the sidewalk and suddenly trip and fall.
- As you try to stand up, you realize you can’t put any weight on your right arm because there’s a searing pain coming from your wrist.
- As you inspect your wrists more carefully, you notice that it looks weird—like, it’s not aimed in the right direction.
- You also notice the throbbing pain in your wrist getting stronger.
- Then it dawns on you… you broke your wrist!
Now, here’s the question (obviously a trick question given the overly dramatic build-up):
Is the pain you feel in your wrist bad?
While it would be tempting to say of course it’s bad because it hurts so damn bad, when you stop and think about it, the answer is pretty clearly no, the pain of a broken wrist is not bad.
Of course, it hurts like hell. But that pain is actually a good thing: It’s your body’s way of signaling that there’s something very wrong with your wrist that should be corrected as soon as possible.
What’s bad is the broken bone. Pain is the messenger. And no matter how much you dislike the message, it’s not a good idea to shoot the messenger.
Just because pain feels bad doesn’t mean it is bad.
And the same is true for emotional pain.
- Feeling anxious is uncomfortable but it’s not bad. You need fear to keep you safe. And even if your fear is occasionally misplaced, that doesn’t mean it’s bad (or you’re bad for feeling it).
- Sadness is uncomfortable but it’s not bad. Sadness is a perfectly normal response to the loss of something valuable and helps us reflect on the things that matter most to us. It may well feel bad to feel sad, but that doesn’t mean it is bad (or you’re bad for feeling it).
- Even an emotion like guilt isn’t actually bad. The feeling of guilt is one of the ways we remember to avoid doing the wrong thing in the future. Again… Just because it feels bad doesn’t mean it is bad (or you’re bad for feeling it).
So, the next time you experience a difficult or painful emotion, try to remind yourself that just because it feels bad doesn’t mean it is bad.
3. Be curious, not judgmental
Okay, so you’re hopefully nodding your head in agreement with my idea in the last point that just because an emotion feels bad doesn’t mean it is bad.
But what do you do after you’ve acknowledged that it’s not bad to feel bad?
Well, the slightly cheeky but ultimately truest answer is…
You don’t have to do anything!
We’ve all been conditioned to think that we have to do something about difficult feelings because we believe that they’re bad. But once you accept the premise that just because it feels bad doesn’t mean it is bad, doing nothing becomes a perfectly valid (and actually very effective) method for handling difficult feelings.
Of course, it takes a fair amount of practice to get in the habit of acknowledging our difficult feelings honestly (instead of intellectualizing them), then reminding ourselves that even though they feel bad doesn’t mean they are bad, and then just letting them be while we go about our lives.
So, a helpful little tip I’ve found is that you can try to replace your instinct to be judgmental about how you’re feeling with the habit of being curious about it.
- Suppose you notice yourself getting increasingly irritated with your kids.
- Your first reaction is to start getting judgmental with yourself for feeling irritated: I need to relax! They’re just little kids. I shouldn’t have such a short fuse. I’m never going to have a good relationship with my kids if I’m always mad at them!
- Now, try to replace that judgmental self-talk with curiosity: Yes, I am irritated and I’d rather not be, but there are probably some reasons why. They are being pretty obnoxious right now. Plus, today was really stressful at work, which is probably a big part of why I’m feeling more irritable than usual. Let me try and remember what sorts of things have helped in the past when I was feeling irritated with the kid… Oh yeah! Maybe we can all go for a walk to the park and get some of that energy out.
Judging yourself for feeling bad is understandable but totally counterproductive…
Feeling and about feeling bad only leads to feeling worse.
If you can start to cultivate a habit of being curious about difficult feelings, rather than judgmental, not only will those feelings subside more quickly, you’ll also be fostering a much kinder, gentler relationship with your own mind.
4. Practice with small emotions
Suppose you wanted to run a marathon. Would it make sense to just lace up your sneakers and try to run for 26.2 miles? Of course not!
If you want to do something challenging like run a marathon you have to train for it. And that means starting with running a couple miles and slowly building your way up.
Or suppose you want to be able to play guitar like Jimi Hendrix. Would it make sense to pick up a guitar and just start trying to play the solo from All Along the Watchtower? Obviously not!
If you have any hopes of playing guitar at all like Jimi Hendrix you’re going to have to practice first. And that means practicing Twinkle Twinkle Little Star or something easier for a while and gradually working your way up.
Well, the same principle applies to dealing with difficult emotions…
You can’t just expect to be an expert at managing hugely painful emotions if you haven’t practiced.
And the best way to practice is to start small and work your way up.
- Let’s say you struggle with social anxiety.
- And the thing your social anxiety is really holding you back from is making new friends.
- But striking up conversations with brand new people is just about the scariest thing you can imagine doing.
- Instead of trying to brute force your way through conversations with new people, practice on smaller easier situations first.
- Maybe you practice having casual chit-chat with some coworkers who you’re familiar with but don’t actually talk about non-work stuff with very often.
- Then, once you feel a little more confident, try initiating conversations with waiters and waitresses or checkout clerks at the store—new people but where the stakes are lower.
See the pattern?
Getting better at dealing with big, painful emotions is a skill like anything else. Which means it makes sense to practice in a similar way as you do any other skill in life: Start small and slowly work your way up as you gain both competence and confidence.
Not only with this help you get better at managing whatever difficult emotion it is you struggle with, but it will also help cultivate a healthier relationship with difficult emotions generally.
Because when your mind sees you habitually approaching, rather than avoiding, difficult feelings, it stops viewing them as threats and dangers.
And in the long run, that’s where true emotional strength comes from—learning to be compassionate, not combative, with our feelings.
Want to Work with Me to Build a Healthier Relationship with Your Emotions?
A couple times a year, I guide a small group of motivated individuals through a six-week program to build emotional strength and resilience. It’s called Mood Mastery and you can learn more about it here →