I grew up in a home that was far from ordinary. My friends jokingly referred to it as Willy Wonka’s factory on crack. My mailbox was shaped like a big pink heart; there was purple trim around the outside of the house; every post on the walkway to my front door and every cabinet in the kitchen was a different pastel color.
There was an illuminated sign with the word “love” accompanied by hot pink leather couches and wall hangings full of hearts and ice cream sundaes. My mom, on a mission to be love, was committed to her spiritual practice. She meditated for two hours a day and taught her family that love conquers all. At the time, I thought this lifestyle was normal. Wasn’t everyone’s home overflowing with smiles and hugs?
There is no doubt that my childhood was a uniquely special experience. But one thing I learned was that, in this environment of joy and love, I wasn’t quite sure what to do with my pain. As a young girl I received so much positive reinforcement for being “perfect” that I started ignoring my negative feelings. When I felt unhappy, I focused instead on how much worse the situation could be. But after I lost control one day and ate a half-pound box of Butterfingers, I realized something was wrong. Maybe there was something less-than-perfect going on inside me.
My personal struggles inspired me to become a psychotherapist, to help teach people about unconditional self-acceptance (i.e. self-love). I hope that, one day, taking care of our feelings will be as commonplace as taking care of our bodies. But through my own experiences, and those of my friends, family, and patients, I’ve realized that's not yet the case. Most of us don’t know how to handle our difficult emotions.
Emotions: How Do We Deal With Them?
Here are a few common patterns I’ve observed that people use to “deal with” difficult emotions. I’ve personally noticed that these techniques apply to many of my patients, although there are of course other strategies.
- Avoidance: Growing up, I really believed everything was always happy. I wasn’t in touch with my feelings enough to even know I had sadness and pain buried inside. When we don’t deal with the source of our pain, it comes out in other, sometimes unhealthy ways. (For me, that was the habit of bingeing on chocolate.)
- Guarding: When a friend says something upsetting but we keep our disappointment to ourselves, we’re guarding our feelings. Sometimes we fear the friend’s response to our anger; sometimes we’re afraid of seeming vulnerable. But hiding true feelings can keep us from having authentic interactions with the people we feel closest to.
- Judgment: When we aren’t feeling secure and comfortable with ourselves, we’re more likely to pass judgment over everyone else. If we feel “fat,” we may be more inclined to focus on someone else’s faults instead of acknowledging that we’re dissatisfied with ourselves in that moment.
- Anger: Expressing anger can make us feel powerful when we’re feeling weak. If a friend makes a joke at our expense, instead of just saying the joke was hurtful, we might act aggressive to try to regain power in the relationship.
- Depression: Being consistently unable to deal with sadness or pain can lead to depression. It’s okay to be sad, but it’s a problem if we hate ourselves for feeling that way.
- Anxiety: Avoiding difficult emotions can result from anxiety. We often try to control things in our environment to relieve our anxiety, rather than dealing with the feelings directly.
Honor Your Feelings
To start getting in touch with your emotions, here are a few simple strategies:
- Pause: Not everyone needs a full therapy session to deal with his/her feelings. When difficult emotions arise, get in the habit of taking a moment to pause and consider how you’re feeling. Notice physical sensations too: Is your throat tight? Is your heart beating fast? Is your stomach in knots? Just recognizing these sensations is an important step.
- Breathe: Focus on the natural ebb and flow of your breath. It can help us feel calm and keep us from getting caught up in our feelings
- Reflect: Don’t resist the way you’re feeling. Instead, think about why you might be scared, anxious, or frustrated. These are natural emotions, but learning what triggers these feelings can help you can handle them more effectively the next time they arise.
Difficult emotions are part of the human experience. Be secure in your vulnerability. Real strength is not pretending not to feel; it’s the courage to know our feelings are OK.
Greatist Journeys explore amazing stories from extraordinary people. This post was written by guest contributor Jasmin Terrany, a psychotherapist in Miami, Florida. All views and opinions expressed in the piece are hers. Jasmin blogs regularly at JasminBalance, where she writes about everything from relationships and self-esteem to mindfulness and meditation. In this post, she tells us it’s okay to have negative feelings and gives advice on how to deal with them. For more from Jasmin, follow her on Facebook and Twitter.