Everyone feels angry, scared, sad, frustrated or guilty sometimes. These are emotions we’d rather rid ourselves of as quickly as possible. Why are they so difficult to manage and how can we make them work for us?
There’s no such thing as a life free from uncomfortable or challenging thoughts and feelings, no matter how much we might want that. But these thoughts and emotions aren’t necessarily bad for us. What’s more, in certain situations, they can even be helpful.
Feeling good as a societal norm
“How’s it going?” “Good, thanks! And you?” Often this is our reaction, even when we aren’t feeling so good at all. Why is this the standard response?
“Society teaches us that we’re supposed to feel ‘good’ all the time.” explains Pia Linden, a psychologist at OpenUp. “When negative thoughts and feelings arise, we’re often advised to seek a distraction by doing something fun, treating ourselves, or simply focusing on the positive.”
Obviously, these are well-intentioned suggestions, but they don’t always have the desired effect. They can even be damaging, according to the book ‘Toxic Positivity’ by the American psychotherapist Whitney Goodman. By approaching everything in a positive way, we end up ignoring our real feelings. It causes us to suppress our emotions.
Pia sees this too: “We learn, often during childhood, to force away our negative thoughts and feelings, to ignore them or distract ourselves with other things. But uncomfortable thoughts and feelings are an unavoidable part of life.”
“It’s normal to not always feel happy and good about yourself. Feeling bad doesn’t necessarily mean that something’s wrong.”
Life isn’t always a party
Nobody is happy 24/7, even if it seems that way from the outside. Everybody faces challenges and difficult times. If things are turbulent in your external world, then this will automatically be reflected in your internal world. Everything we experience has an impact on our thoughts and feelings.
“That’s totally normal,” Pia explains. “It’s okay if sometimes you feel sad, gloomy, disappointed, anxious or afraid, especially if there’s a clear trigger. This doesn’t mean that there’s something wrong with you, that’s just the way life goes sometimes. Once you’ve made it through these difficult periods and challenges, life will naturally look brighter again.”
Make your emotions work for you
But sometimes this doesn’t happen on its own. “Your challenging thoughts and feelings might sometimes persist for a longer period of time, even when you’ve overcome all the relevant obstacles and there’s no obvious reason for you to feel the way you do. Still, you don’t have to avoid these emotions; you can actually make them work for you.”
“Negative emotions can allow you to see where you might want to make changes in your life.”
Using your emotions as a navigational device
We’d all rather feel good all the time, but it’s actually the difficult periods – and the feelings that arise during these times – that help us to progress in life. When you don’t feel so good about yourself, this can be a good indication that something needs to change in your life and that it’s time to do something about that. This will eventually help you to live a more satisfying life in a way that suits you.
But where do you start if you want to change something about your life? “Change can come from within or through external factors,” explains Pia.
“You can turn your gaze outwards by changing your situation where possible or distancing yourself from it. Or you can take an internal approach by reframing your perspective of the situation, accepting the situation, and letting go of any resistance.”
Dealing with thoughts and feelings
Making changes or accepting a situation is easier said than done. What can you practically do to manage your thoughts and feelings?
1. Allow yourself to feel
Make space for your negative feelings. Experience them by trying to observe your feelings without judgment. Focus on the sensations in your body caused by a particular feeling. Name what you’re experiencing by saying, for example: ‘I am experiencing fear’, instead of ‘I am afraid’. And try to accept that this feeling is (temporarily) just an inevitable part of life.
2. Reflect on your feelings
Reflect on the cause of these thoughts and feelings. When doing so, try to create some distance so you don’t get even more swept up in them. Where are these feelings coming from and what can the situation tell you or teach you? Also, remember that feelings come and go. However intense they might feel: ‘this too shall pass’.
3. Share your feelings
Many people keep their negative thoughts and emotions to themselves, which can actually amplify them. You should share how you’re feeling because it takes a load off your mind. Seek out someone in your environment who you trust and who can offer you guidance and a safe space to vent your feelings.
It’s also nice to get your thoughts down on paper; in other words, to literally write out your feelings. Whatever you do: Don’t just keep it all to yourself.
4. Figure out what you need
Take a moment to think about what you need right now. Be gentle with yourself, especially when things are tough, a good dose of self-compassion goes a long way. Would you rather stay at home and spend some time by yourself, or do you want to meet up with friends?
To be clear, the latter isn’t just a way of distracting yourself, but a means of containing, overviewing, and processing your feelings. Whatever you do, make sure it serves you. The keyword here is self-care.
5. Process your emotions
There are many different ways to process emotions. Be creative (drawing, painting, writing, singing…!) or exercise, get outside, soak in your natural surroundings, talk about it, take time for yourself… Experiencing negative emotions can also be an invitation to experiment with different methods and forms of expression. This will help you to get more in touch with your feelings and figure out what really works for you in life.
6. Focus on your resiliency
We are often stronger and more resilient than we think we are. Think back to previous challenges and difficult times that you’ve managed to overcome. What helped you back then? Trust that you’ll make it through yet again.
Help managing your emotions
If you can’t figure things out by yourself, know that it is okay to seek help. It doesn’t matter how you’re feeling, what has happened or how long it has been going on.