It’s a natural human inclination to want to avoid pain and head toward pleasure. Unfortunately, unless you spend most of your days in a cave, unpleasant things will happen. Thriving is not about avoiding the uncomfortable emotions that arise, it’s about successfully managing those uncomfortable emotions. Thankfully, this management is a skill that can be learned and used to confront even our most challenging feelings.
Thanks, but No Thanks
Why not just avoid pain entirely? Susan David,PhDand author of Emotional Agility says that many people come to her saying that they will do anything to not feel the pain that plagues them. “I understand”, she says. “But you have dead people’s goals.” Avoiding pain is just covering it up, ignoring it, or pretending it’s not there. It diminishes our ability to handle situations instead of adding to our strengths. Letting uncomfortable emotions exist alongside the ones that we deem more comfortable is the first step in creating the resilience that will eventually make us stronger.
Embrace the Suck
The benefit of managing uncomfortable emotions is that you build a kind of “muscle memory” for the next time something makes you feel terrible. You will no longer approach a situation with dread or fear because you know the suck is coming. Instead, you can remind yourself of your successful navigation of past obstacles and have the confidence to handle things again. Take comfort in knowing that in study after study, people who experience adversity end up feeling more satisfied in life. In the book Supernormal, Meg Jay, PhD tells story after story of presidents, actors, athletes, and soldiers who all reported better mental health and well-being after overcoming emotional difficulties. It’s not bad company to be in!
OK, How Do I Do It?
A great place to start is with the TRUTH technique outlined by Tina Gilbertson. Tell Yourself the Situation- State the facts of the situation with no judgment. Take the emotion out to give yourself a blank canvas. Realize What You’re Feeling- Dive right into how the situation makes you feel. Again, no judgment allowed! Uncover Self-Criticism- Do not explain away or try to justify emotions. Do not become impatient with yourself if your reaction does not coincide with your values. Try to Understand Yourself- Do not evaluate the feelings as “good” or “bad”. Instead, try to understand why a person might be feeling the way you do given the circumstances. Have the Feeling- Whatever you’re feeling, let it happen. Don’t be afraid to feel worse before feeling better. And yes, it’s ok to not be okay.
But, Can I Afford It?
Dr. Davis says that discomfor
t is the price of admission to a meaningful life. Viewing uncomfortable emotions in this way tells us that each time we invest in the work of handling them, we’re getting a huge return back. If you are asking yourself if you can afford to take the time to manage uncomfortable emotions…the better question is how can you afford not to?
David, S. (2016). Emotional Agility (p. p. 6). New York: Avery-Penguin Random House. Jay, M. (2017). Supernormal. New York: Hachette Book Group. Gilbertson, T. (2015). Constructive wallowing. Berkeley: Piatkus Books.