Sometimes I get frustrated about all the suffocating emphasis on positivity. Don’t get me wrong: I am actually a massive believer in the power of positive thought; however, I do not think that frantically trying to get rid of every thought that is not a positive one does much help.
Denying our more complex emotions—either because they make us uncomfortable, or because we are desperately trying to stay positive—prevents us from healing. The emotions that are typically labelled as negative, are usually trying to bring our attention to triggers or circumstances that need addressing. They are trying to show us where we need to adjust our thinking, our lives, our relationships, and our careers, etc.
Emotions are your intuitive self talking to you. Madly trying to suppress your emotions doesn’t work. Positive thinking has to be about becoming more aware of the emotions that indicate we are on the right path.
Do Complicated Emotions Freak You Out?
The simple truth is that complicated emotions are confrontational. They indicate that we have to face something, deal with trauma, face the pain, and come face-to-face with our wounded self. This is not always easy. Sometimes we would rather just pretend it is not happening. The problem with these emotions is that they don’t shut up just because we do not want to meet the challenge.
The good news is that—while we have to deal with our trauma and triggers—we do not have to be ruled by our emotions. We do not have to let guilt, fear, or shame dictate our decisions in life.
Below are some concepts and tools that I find useful when trying to be resilient while experiencing complex emotions:
Not Right Now
In How Does Resilience Help With Life’s Big Stuff?, Michael Ballard and I talk about the concept of shrinking and stretching. When we are confronted with something complicated and scary, our survival instincts often makes us shrink away. It is fine to shrink away from something for a while; it is part of our survival mechanism. And for a short while it works. Eventually we need to stretch ourselves, though, in order to face the music and come up with practical solutions.
There is no need to beat yourself up over shrinking away for a time. Sometimes life needs us to push through for a bit. We can do that for a while, but not forever.
Sometimes it is not so much the practical circumstances of our lives that prevent us from dealing with an issue, but the social factors. As targets of abuse, we have been living in a constant state of unbalance. We never feel comfortable or safe. In order to really heal— and confront the most painful memories—we need to gain a feeling of emotional security. While we heal, we build a new support network. That process takes time. And this may mean we need to push certain issues to the side until we feel stable enough to deal with them.
This choice is not always one we make on a conscious level. We often instinctively shrink away from an issue because we feel we cannot cope. Depending on the nature and consequence of that particular issue, we can allow ourselves to shrink or challenge ourselves to stretch accordingly.
Knowing the difference between shrinking and stretching is important. It will help you understand what is going on.
Taking Notice of the Alarm Bells
If your emotion is an alarm bell, it will keep going off until you listen! Even if you do not immediately fix or address an issue, noticing and accepting the underlying problem will help. Acknowledging that something is troubling you, why you are triggered, or even simply that you are triggered will help you calm down.
It isn’t always obvious where emotions are coming from. In fact, sometimes we catch feelings from others, so the first question we have to ask is: are these feelings mine? (This ends rather abruptly. Can you give an example of catching someone else’s feelings? Create another paragraph from this example. This will clarify things for the reader, and provide a smooth transition into the next paragraph).
Digging down deep is not always easy because there are so many factors to consider. Not just our traumatic past, but also our current lives and circumstances. This is why journaling helps me at times like this. It gives me a way to organize my thoughts, and sometimes brings back memories that I didn’t realise I still needed to process.
Framing and Reframing
Throughout this process of working through all these memories, think about how you can reframe all the thoughts and circumstances associated with them? How can you look at the situation differently? What can you learn from it by viewing it from another angle?
Not so long ago, I wrote the following story for another project I worked on:
How Mags Unlocked the Power of Gratitude, or a Bloody Expensive Lesson in Positive Thinking
I moved into my new house yesterday. I have been looking forward to it for months. This place suit us much better. It is closer to hubby’s work, closer to the activities we like, and closer to our friends. Yeah, that sounds pretty idyllic. Of course—as much as I had tried to ignore the fact—the actual move was exhausting! This morning was the first morning in our new home. We had a long sleep (since hubby didn’t have to work until later in the day), and had a relaxing time laughing at ourselves as we looked for stuff in our boxes. I decided to leave the house with hubby as he went to work so I could go and order us a new washer. As the door closed behind me, we realized we had left the key in the lock on the inside. We were locked out of our brand new apartment.
I tried to stay calm as I walked hubby to the tube station. ‘I am going back.’ I said. ‘I need to take care of this.’ So I walked back to the apartment building, fully prepared to face this challenge like an adult. But by the time I got to my front door, that can do attitude evaporated. Then I discovered that my phone provider had canceled my mobile phone service during the move.
I slid onto the floor sobbing.
I was so tired, so stressed, and I just didn’t know what to do.
Luckily, my phone had connected to the wifi inside. I used an app and called a friend through it to tell her what had happened. She was at work a few towns over, but she jumped into action. She Googled the information she needed, and called a local locksmith to meet me at my home. ‘They will be there in about 30 minutes.’ She wrote me.
When the locksmith got to my door, all he could say was: WOW!
Not a very reassuring sound coming from someone who is supposed to get you back into your house. It is like a hairdresser saying oops while cutting your hair.
After a little lesson in how utterly heavy duty my front door lock was, the guy got to work.
I took him a total of 1 hour and 40 minutes, 10 drill bits ,and 3 lock picky screw things (official name, I’m sure) to get me back in. At that point, my heavy duty lock was more heavy and less duty, so he had to replace the lot.
Total bill: 640 quid!
I pulled out my debit card and paid the man.
I could have let this whole experience ruin my day. But although it had obviously derailed my plans—frustrating and exhausting me— I did not give in to tthe temptation to be negative.
Here is what I took from this experience:
– I had a soul sister to call who—without any judgment—jumped into action. I have not always been able to do this comfortably, so it was nice to be able to recognise how far I’ve come.
– I had some lovely conversation with a locksmith about patience, problems vs. challenges, and the Hebrew language (not necessarily in that order).
– I learned a lot. Not in the least not to leave the key in the lock, but mostly that we all make mistakes in life and we can approach ourselves with kindness and compassion.
– I now know that my home is pretty much the Fort Knox of rentals.
– I was able to pay an unexpected bill of 640 quid, from my current account, just like that! Which means that I have a solid savings account. Because I have a job that I can live off. Having this to focus on was a bloody new experience! So despite the situation, this was something to celebrate.
After I was back inside—and after a relaxing cup of coffee—I walked out to the market. I bought the ingredients I needed for the lovely Moroccan style chicken stew with couscous, nuts, and herbs I would make that night. I even got a free pomegranate because the register in the fruit shop was not working! So when I got home, I was already feeling a lot better.
Don’t get me wrong, it was a shitty experience. And trust me: there was a bottle of wine in that shopping bag. What I’m saying, though, is that I got through it because I chose to focus on the blessings in my life.
So my question is: other than alarm bells, what else are your complicated emotions showing you? Are they reminders of how far you have already come? Or are your reactions highlighting how much better you’re coping these days because you have a great support network? Challenging ourselves to reframe complex emotions can help us be more resilient and feel more balanced in the face of challenges.
Quiet Down Your Mind
When emotions get overwhelming, you will want to get your mind to calm down. Pushing away your emotions, like I keep saying, does not work. So, what does?
When I feel overwhelmed by sadness and feel I need to purge, I find the saddest film available on Netflix, and wrap myself in my favorite blanket. I just let the tears come, and they seem to take care of the rest. Other times I just want to break away from the complexities of what I am feeling. It’s in these moments that I subscribe to the old adage that laughter is the best medicine. Some of the best advice I could give is: when you find yourself in a situation that is testing you, make space for humor. Read or watch something that tickles that funny bone! Laughter will relief the tension; it releases happy hormones that will improve your mood, and bring you back into balance.
Another way to help you keep your emotional mind in check is by meditation. You don’t need to take an hour a day to sit in the lotus position, don’t worry. I recently heard it described as keeping your monkey brain busy by giving it a job to do. The job being: notice my breath. Don’t have your monkey brain control or influence your breath, just let it watch your breath. You can do this at any time of day, even if you do it for 2 or 3 seconds at a time. Do it often and consistently, and you will experience that your inner-world becomes quieter, and less erratic.
If you want to learn a little more about meditation and mindfulness, check out this powerful TED Talk.
Dealing with complex emotions may never be fun exactly, but you can empower yourself in the process.