When was the last time you experienced a difficult emotion? Was it a break up? Losing your job or being passed over for a promotion? Your child acting out or being hurt? Learning that a close family member is not well? Whatever caused the emotional difficulty, think about how you responded to this experience. Did you suppress the emotions that arose and try to move forward like nothing was wrong? Did you get overwhelmed by what you were feeling and do something that you regretted later?
With the exception of anger, Black women are often socialized not to express our emotions. Many of us were scolded if we cried or showed that we were upset as children. There may not have been room to express our frustration or disagreements with parents or siblings in a healthy way. As we got older people we dated may have communicated that our emotional responses were not okay. In addition to those experiences, we may have been traumatized by emotional, physical, or sexual abuse. All of these things can cause us to have a complicated relationship with our emotions. Some of us suppress emotions when they arise because we fear that if we allow ourselves to experience difficult emotions they will overwhelm us. Suppressed emotions may go away for a little while but they always return eventually and they are often more complicated when they reappear. Others of us wallow in our emotions, holding on to them so tightly that we have difficulty seeing things clearly. Getting overwhelmed by our emotions often leads to unhealthy behavior that causes even more problems.
We all have emotions because we are human beings so we need to learn healthy ways to respond to difficult emotions. No matter what caused your difficulty with emotions, here are some simple strategies you can use to begin responding to your emotions in a healthy way.
1. Pay Attention to Your Physical Sensations
When you feel triggered, see if you can pause for a few moments and notice your physical sensations. Do this by scanning your body from head to toe and notice where you feel the emotion most strongly. Be curious about this physical sensation and see if you can notice it’s shape, size, temperature, and any other characteristics. As you’re noticing your physical sensations, take a few, slow, deep breaths.
2. Accept the Emotion
One of our main challenges with emotions is that we don’t want to accept that we have them. This non-acceptance can come in the form of over-analyzing how we are feeling to try to get rid of the emotion, lashing out at people around us to transfer the emotion to someone else, or trying to ignore the emotion all together. While these strategies may help us to feel better temporarily, they often make things worse in the long run. Many people feel like they cannot accept something that they do not like or want. Think about it this way, if you broke your arm you would accept the doctor’s diagnosis even if you didn’t like or want it. Accepting that your arm is broken allows you to take appropriate steps to help your arm to heal so that you can move forward in a healthy way. It’s similar with emotions, accepting your emotions allows you to heal and move forward with your life.
In order to accept your emotions see if you can acknowledge what you are feeling (noticing the physical sensations will help) without judging yourself. Take a few deep breaths and just allow the feeling to be there. Remember that you are having this emotion because you are a human being. You are not alone in feeling sad, frustrated, disappointed, angry, etc. Having the emotion you are experiencing shows that you care about something and the emotion shows there is a gap between what you hoped for and what happened.
3. Engage in Self-Compassion
Many of us begin to judge ourselves when we are experiencing a difficult emotion. We have a fantasy that if we had just done everything right we wouldn’t be upset. We believe that if we were the perfect girlfriend, wife, mother, employee, we wouldn’t get hurt. Unfortunately, this self-judgment increases our distress. Another way to respond to ourselves, when we are feeling upset is with self-compassion. Compassion is often what we need most when we are in distress.
To respond to yourself with compassion when experiencing a difficult emotion gently place one of one hand over the part of your body where you are having physical sensations connected to the emotion…imagine that this is a healing hand…don’t try to get rid of the emotion just see if you can be gentle with it and allow it to be there. Treat the emotion as if it were a crying baby or a scared puppy.
4. Pause and Reflect before You Act
One of the most valuable things about learning to respond to our emotions in a healthy ways is that it gives us the space to think about what, if any, actions we want to take to address what triggered us. While the drama of instantly reacting to everything that makes you angry or upset can be exciting, the fallout from that pattern can get old. The first three strategies I reviewed will help you to slow down long enough to choose how you would like to respond to an upsetting situation. Often, this helps us to choose actions that are more constructive and less destructive. Things that will de-escalate a tense situation instead of adding fuel to the fire. Ultimately, this can lead to relationships and general interactions that are more healthy and calm.
These strategies have been helpful to me and as well as to my clients and I hope that they will help you to develop a healthy relationship with your emotions as well.