In our society, happiness is typically seen as the desired state no matter what you may be facing. Unfortunately, at some point in our lives, most of us have experienced the scary pit of hurt, anger or sadness that comes with stressful life circumstances. Some of us have felt it in lesser forms…as a twinge or flutter of something that does not quite feel right. We may try to ignore, block, numb, or “get over” these difficult emotions. Our culture contains so many messages that stigmatize sadness, hurt, frustration, or anger – making it very difficult to let ourselves feel them. However, these difficult emotions are there for a reason, and making space for them in our lives is important for our mental health.
When we listen to the messages around us that say we should avoid negative emotions, we learn to stifle these emotions and fake being happy. Unfortunately, with negative emotions, “fake it till you make it” does not always work! Numbing or distracting ourselves from these emotions sometimes seems like the next best choice. These numbing agents may come in the form of alcohol, drugs, shopping sprees, eating, sex or work. Many times we begin to need these numbing agents more often, as the negative feeling continues to expand or simply stay present… rather than dissipate as hoped. It is similar to putting a Band-Aid over a gaping wound that is becoming infected. We hope that this will be enough, so we can avoid the painful process of cleaning out the wound and fully dressing it. However, we tend to end up with a much larger issue as the wound was never properly attended to and the metaphorical “infection” takes over!
In reality, when we numb or try to escape negative emotions without processing them, they lose their usefulness. Despite the messages, we receive that negative emotions are “bad”, these emotions in and of themselves are very healthy. Negative emotions help us to tune into times when a boundary has been crossed, or when something has hurt us. The fear or anxiety we are experiencing might tell us that we need out of a situation. The sadness we feel after losing someone might be honoring the importance they had in our lives.
When we allow ourselves to stop fighting the emotion and begin to accept it and learn from it, it loses its power. This is when we truly heal. In his article “6 Steps to Mindfully Deal with Difficult Emotions”, Toni Parker from the Gottman Institute discusses some of the ways we can interact with our difficult emotions, and how this can help us both individually and in relationships. In particular, Parker discusses the importance of tuning into these emotions with care and acceptance: be curious about what they say about you, your needs or your relationships.
It would be wrong to say that working through negative emotions is an easy task. It is not. No one wants to sit in an uncomfortable state. Similar to cleaning out a wound, the process can be painful. Having supportive individuals around you is important in this process. Therapy can also be a very helpful option in unpacking and working through emotions in a way that builds coping and healing. Whatever route you choose, remember that when we begin to tune into our emotions with patience, acceptance, curiosity, and nurturance, we can then begin to heal.
Parker, T. (2016) “6 Steps to Mindfully Deal with Negative Emotions”. Retrieved August 7, 2018 at https://www.gottman.com/blog/6stepstomindfullydealwithdifficultemotions/
Ashley Elcock, M.S.
Clarity Clinic NWI