Working with Difficult Emotions
Difficult emotions are labeled that way because they are difficult to feel, difficult to experience, to name, to own, and to overcome. Some of the emotions that might come to mind as you think about the most difficult things you feel include shame, guilt, fear, rage, grief, regret, and unworthiness.
Since these emotions are so difficult to work through, it’s not uncommon for you to adopt behaviors to cope with feelings like these. Some of these coping behaviors may be more or less helpful or adaptive for you. In this post, we’ll examine ways that you might avoid working through difficult emotions and alternative ways to cope and grow through these feelings.
Common Coping Behaviors
You may cope with difficult feelings in a variety of ways. Coping mechanisms essentially help you psychologically deal with feelings that are overwhelming or distressing. All coping mechanisms are adaptive in some way - they help you get through what you’re feeling so that you can function in life. However, some of those very adaptive skills become less adaptive as you age, mature, or encounter different circumstances. At this point, they can become maladaptive - they are no longer helping you or are now causing other problems for you. Two examples of coping skills we often see clients use, which may have at some been adaptive at one point but are now causing problems, are distancing and distracting behaviors. You might overwhelmingly choose one of these mechanisms, or a combination of the two, to manage what you feel.
If you use more distancing behaviors to protect yourself when overwhelmed, you commonly push people away, have a hard time with intimacy, or put up walls in your life. You might feel like to get through life, you must only trust yourself or do it all yourself. You might run away from conflict that triggers these difficult feelings, especially if your difficult emotions are tied to an unresolved situation in your life. For instance, if a partner left you unexpectedly in a previous relationship (or you experienced neglect or abandonment as a child), you might have deep-seated feelings of inadequacy or fear around abandonment, and therefore adopt distancing behaviors to minimize the odds of those difficult emotions recurring with a new partner.
On the other hand, if you tend to use distractions to cope, you may have as a child learned that escaping into the fantasy of a book, being a superstar student or dedicated athlete, or turning to drugs and alcohol at a young age to cope was adaptive for you dealing with difficult emotions growing up. As an adult, you may turn to drinking, gambling, overeating, shopping, overworking, or even acting out sexually to avoid feeling uncomfortable emotions. These behaviors are intended to both distract and numb you from feeling the intensity of difficult emotions. They also offer an escape from the need to work through unwanted feelings. For example, if your marriage is in collapse and you often feel guilt and rage about your partnership when you are in the company of your spouse, you may choose to work long hours at work to avoid coming home and feeling such difficult emotions. Work becomes a coping behavior and a distraction.
Healthy Coping Strategies
Once you can acknowledge the difficult feelings you have, you can develop awareness and begin to choose healthier alternatives. The need to address these difficult emotions might take months or even years to identify in your life, and it could be a long and difficult process to maintain the willingness and desire to work on these difficult emotions. Here are some healthy coping strategies to explore:
Therapy: Working with a trained professional often accelerates healing and a deeper understanding of the root causes of your difficult emotions so that healing happens at a more fundamental level. A therapist trained in attachment theory can be particularly effective because it helps you understand relationship dynamics that continue to come up.
Reframing: One of the most effective ways to turn difficult emotions into positive experiences is to use “reframing”. Any difficult emotion can be transformed into a powerful lesson. If you have guilt and shame about a divorce, for instance, you can reframe the situation as an opportunity to better understand yourself, your triggers, and what you really need in a relationship to be fulfilled.
Feeling: All coping mechanisms are designed to avoid feeling and addressing the rawness of an intense emotion. Instead of spinning up a story about an emotion you feel, sit with the rawness of it, name what you feel, and don’t be afraid to sit with the ups and downs of the emotion as it comes up for you.
Forgive Yourself: Oftentimes, what keeps emotions strong is the inability to forgive yourself for the mistakes you made that resulted in the emotion. Forgiving yourself is a process and a decision. Making peace with your part of the story, and owning it, and recognizing the lessons is a healthy and effective way to cope.
Be the witness: Emotions are often escalated because of your direct emotional involvement in a given situation. Practice stepping outside of your involvement in a situation and seeing it from a third party perspective, an observer or pretend it is happening to someone close to you. When you can witness your life outside of the emotions it evokes, you can see it more objectively and recognize that the strong emotions you feel are a choice. Use empathy to see the whole situation, not just your side of the story.
At Center for Shared Insight, we see everyday that overcoming difficult situations can result in a more satisfactory life. Not only can we help you recognize your default coping mechanisms, we can work closely with you to help you adopt alternative, healthy means to overcome the difficult emotions you may carry with you, sometimes even unconsciously. We invite you to contact our office for a free intake and to be matched with one of our therapists to get on the road to better understanding how to overcome difficult emotions.