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How to Deal with Difficult Emotions

An abuse survivor, asked to remember the moments when she lived in fear of her father’s hand, bluntly answered “I don’t want to remember anymore.” And can you blame her? How many of us have memories we’d rather not recall? Or situations we prefer to avoid rather than come face-to-face with? Truth is, we’d rather bury some of our thoughts and experiences because the emotions they surface are way too much to bear.

The thing is, repressing emotions will not make them go away. These emotions will just simmer beneath the surface, and manifest themselves in more indirect (but no less defeating) ways. For instance, your constant feeling of lethargy and lack of meaning can be caused by anger you refuse to acknowledge. Or your tendency to say hurtful things to your children can be caused by an issue you have with your own parents. While it’s a task, we need to deal head-on with our difficult emotions. This is the only way we can feel free, and able to open ourselves to authentic vulnerability again.

Consider the following tips in dealing with difficult emotions:

Demystify your difficult emotion

Difficult emotions look intimidating because we refuse to look at them closely. They’re like big, dark shadows in a cave --- you don’t know if they’re from a small or big creature. Because you’d rather not know, they become more and more powerful for you. But in reality, they may be quite simple and straightforward to handle.

If you want to be able to deal with difficult emotions, be ready to study then. Label your difficult emotion; ask yourself what it is exactly that you feel.  Rank your emotions in terms of intensity; on a scale of 1 to 10, is your sadness a 6 or an 8? Define your emotion’s many layers; is your anger more at yourself or at the other person? Taking a quiet moment to dissect difficult emotions will help you in feeling less afraid of what they can do to you.

Envision what’s in it for you

You may need to motivate yourself in dealing with difficult emotions. Why don’t you start by envisioning how different your life would be once you’re no longer carrying that large chip on your shoulder? Will you be able to trust yourself in a relationship again? Will you be able to finally find contentment in your lot? And ask yourself: isn’t all this worth the effort of dealing with my difficult emotions?

Family therapist Mara Palazzoli once described our emotionality as a river the flow of which is being blocked by big rocks. According to Palazzoli, once you’re able to get rid of the big rocks, the force of the river’s flow will take care of the smaller rocks, ensuring the purity of the river. Similarly, once we can remove the difficult emotions plaguing our psyche, we will feel more empowered to deal with smaller crisis that comes our way. We’ll feel more pure, more content and more at peace with ourselves.

Take your time

Lastly, be gentle with yourself. Depending on what particular issues you’re dealing with, and how long you’ve been carrying them, a difficult emotion may take days, sometimes even years, to manage. Take your time. Personal development is a lifelong process and the journey is as important as the destination. And if there are moments when you feel like you will suffer a painful relapse, just take a breather and relax. The last thing you want is to pressure yourself to wellness.

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