Imagine what life would be like if we dealt with our physical difficulties in the same way we manage our emotional struggles…..
Many of us struggle to recognise and/or accept our emotions and therefore are not in a position to manage our emotions in a helpful manner. Let’s look at how this would play out in relation to a simple physical problem.
Imagine the scene:
Sarah, a keen gardener, is pruning her prize-winning roses one sunny afternoon. She gets distracted for a moment and a thorn imbeds in her finger. Sarah reacts angrily, telling herself that this “shouldn’t have happened”. She then proceeds to blame herself for the incident, telling herself she “shouldn’t be so distractable, so flaky”. Despite experiencing pain in her finger, she continues on with her gardening for the rest of the afternoon. That evening, she notices her finger is red and swollen but she ignores it and doesn’t mention it to anyone. She is hopeful the problem will resolve itself overnight.
Over the next few days, Sarah’s finger becomes really painful and she wonders if it might be infected. She pushes on through, coping with the pain by taking painkillers and drinking wine in the evening. She knows she needs some help but she is worried that the doctor will judge her as foolish for letting the accident happen in the first place and for letting the wound become infected (which is how she sees it). She finally books an appointment with the doctor but since she is embarrassed, she plays down the amount of pain she is in. The doctor diagnoses an infection but does not offer her any pain relief as Sarah did not mention how much pain she is in. She spends the next few days and nights struggling with pain and unable to sleep. Finally the antibiotics kick in and Sarah starts to feel better.
This would be an unusual response to getting a thorn in your finger right? Let’s look at what went wrong along the way:
Non-acceptance of what had happened
When the incident occurred, Sarah didn’t accept it, instead she told herself it shouldn’t have happened.
Blame and self-criticism
Sarah then proceeded to give herself a hard time for the incident, blaming herself for her distress and discomfort.
Ignoring bodily signals
Sarah spent the rest of the day trying to block out the pain she was feeling so she could get on with her day and do the things she needed to do. She also used painkillers and wine to help her block out what was going on for her.
Keeping her difficulties to herself
Sarah didn’t tell anyone in her family about what had happened because she felt embarrassed/ashamed. As a result, she didn’t receive any comfort, help or advice from anyone.
Allowing the distress to continue and hoping it would resolve despite contrary evidence
Sarah continued to ignore her difficulties, despite the fact they were worsening. She was not attending to the evidence presenting itself that the problem was worsening.
Not being clear with professionals about what is really going on Sarah didn’t tell the doctor the full story and as a result didn’t receive the appropriate treatment. This meant she was in pain for longer than necessary.
While this would be an unusual set of responses to physical distress, this is how many of us respond to emotional distress. We often ignore our distressing emotions altogether, not even noticing we have become distressed. If we do notice our distressing emotions, we often don’t accept them, because we don’t like the idea of being angry/anxious/jealous etc, it doesn’t fit with our self-image or we worry that other people won’t like it. If we do acknowledge that we feel a particular way, we often feel ashamed for feeling that way and become self-critical, telling ourselves off for feeling the way we do, saying we are mean, bad or defective for experiencing these emotions. We often don’t want to tell anyone we are emotionally distressed as we see it as a failure, a lack of strength, a character defect and we hope that if we ignore the difficulties they will go away.
Like Sarah in the example above, if we do not acknowledge and accept how we feel, we cannot be not in a position to deal with it in the most helpful way possible. As a result, our difficulties and distressing emotions hang around and often escalate over time.
Some suggestions you may find helpful:
Be aware of what is going on for you. Check in with yourself regularly and notice the presence of your emotions. Ask yourself questions such as, “How am I doing right now? How do I feel in this situation? Is there anything going on for me right now?”
Be open and honest with yourself and others regarding your emotions, turning your mind toward the distress rather than ignoring and moving away.
Accept and normalise your emotions – Remind yourself that all emotions are normal, that they are there for a reason and are trying to communicate something to you. You could say something like “It’s natural to feel this way” or “many people would feel this way in my situation”. Doing this makes you feel united to other people as opposed to isolated and ashamed.
Work on providing yourself with compassion in the distressing situation. Ask yourself questions such as “How can I best support myself in this moment of distress/suffering? What would be most useful for me right now? What needs to happen to make me feel better? What is in my best interests? NB This is not about short-term avoidant coping strategies such as using alcohol or medication to block the difficulties out but a genuine commitment to alleviate the distress and its sources in the long-term.
Dr Róisín Joyce is a Clinical Psychologist and Director at Evidence-Based Therapy Centre, Galway. She uses compassion-focused approaches to understand people’s difficulties and promote self-acceptance, self-compassion and meaningful living.