“I should be able to cope better”.
“I'm crying all over the place and I don’t even know why! There’s no reason for me to be crying”.
“I shouldn't be crying, I never cry”.
“I'm not allowed to cry, I feel like I'm out of control”.
I often hear phrases like these when I speak with people in my work and I get the feeling that they believe emotions are bad. There seems to be a fear that showing emotions is the same as being weak, out of control or even a failure.
I'm here to tell you that nothing could be further from the truth.
I’d like to get a little scientific for a second. I've learned in my psychology studies that some emotions serve a very important function.
The best way to explain this is probably through the use of examples. If you were a caveman (or woman) and were confronted by a tiger looking at you like you’re its next meal, your survival mechanism activates within a split second and your immediate reaction is going to be anxiety and fear. If you didn't have these emotions you are less likely to be on alert for the danger that may take your life. The emotions, brought on by specific chemical (hormones) signals zinging around in your brain, serve the purpose of keeping you alert for danger, thereby increasing the chances that you stay alive.
Also, as human beings, we are designed to be social creatures. We are much more likely to stay alive if we have the resources of the collective at our disposal. It’s therefore important that we are able to remain within the confines of our “tribe”, so we instinctively ensure that what we have on offer is acceptable to the group. We strive to do more, gain skills and contribute enough so that our group membership is assured. We therefore question our own abilities and become anxious and fearful about the possibility of being excluded.
So what does this all mean for you as you go about your daily life in our modern times and encounter different situations that illicit various emotions?
It means that emotions are normal.
When emotions surface (particularly the ones that are commonly considered negative) you’re receiving a signal that something is not right in your life. In caveman times, when you encountered a threat, fear told you your life was in danger. Clearly something isn't right. And the same theory can be used with all emotions.
When you have the belief that negative emotions are bad, or that they make you weak, you instinctively try to push them away so you don’t have to feel them. After all, they don’t feel good, right? You use any resources at your disposal. You might bury yourself in work or distract yourself by keeping busy with all the day to day tasks in your life. Or you might turn to other things like alcohol or food to stop them appearing. You might even use the more socially acceptable emotions such as anger or defensiveness to mask the ones that make you feel vulnerable, such as fear and hurt.
If there is one thing I have learned with the work I do, it’s that the more you push the emotions away, or avoid them, the more they bounce back to you. And research tells us that when they bounce, they bounce higher than they did the first time they hit you. They become more intense and harder to manage the longer you avoid them.
The more you fight them, the more they come back to bite you.
The bottom line is this; emotions are a natural, normal part of the human experience. You cannot avoid them.
So if pushing them away doesn't work, why not try bringing them closer to you? The research I've read indicates that the best way to lessen their intensity is to embrace them. Stop fighting, allow them to be there, and simply acknowledge their existence. By doing so you increase your ability to manage them and you improve the capacity of your brain to process them.
While every instinct you have tells you to get rid of the uncomfortable, painful feelings associated with emotions, if you can give yourself permission to feel them, and notice them with compassion and without judgement, you may find that sometimes their intensity lessens without you doing anything else.
To support you in this process I have some great resources available on my website that you can access for FREE. You can find them on the resources pages. Specifically, try the techniques on the practical activities page.