...and what to do about it
Emotions are part of the rich tapestry of human experience, and throughout our lives, we will experience a varied spectrum of emotions. Painful or negative emotions can be hard to experience, and coping with them can be a journey fraught with hurdles and mistakes. These mistakes can often lead to an increase in painful emotions, which can increase someone’s vulnerability to developing mental health difficulties.
This blog describes seven of the most common mistakes people make when coping with difficult emotions and outlines some tips on managing emotions more effectively.
Mistake #1 – Overidentifying With Emotions
One of the most common pitfalls when dealing with difficult emotions is over-identifying with them; we are the emotion rather than experiencing an emotion. For example, ‘I am sad’. It is natural to feel consumed by strong emotions, but when we start to believe that we are our emotions, it can lead to a sense of helplessness.
Expert tip: Remember that emotions are just internal feelings that we experience, nothing more, nothing less - they do not define us. Observe the emotion by shifting from ‘I am this feeling’ to ‘I am having this feeling'.
Mistake #2 - Bottling them up
Bottling up strong emotions can be like shaking a fizzy soda can – eventually, the pressure will build so much that it will burst. Ignoring or suppressing your feelings may seem like a quick fix, but not allowing the release or processing of the emotion will not be helpful in the long term.
Expert tip: Acknowledging and expressing your emotions are crucial to managing them effectively. Find healthy outlets to help process your feelings. For example, journaling, talking to a friend or seeking professional help.
Mistake #3 Judging yourself for having the emotion
Judging yourself may take the form of “I shouldn’t be feeling like this”. This form of self-criticism is very unhelpful when experiencing painful feelings and can contribute to an amplification of the emotion.
Expert tip: What would you say to a friend if they were feeling this emotion and judging themselves for it? You will likely come up with a few soothing, compassionate phrases – say these to yourself the next time you notice self-judgement in difficult moments.
Mistake #4 – Intellectualising emotions
It is common for people to intellectualise their emotions rather than fully experiencing them. For example, intellectualising may take the form of overthinking the emotion - spending lots of time trying to understand the root cause or why you feel that way or having a good intellectual understanding of the emotion but not allowing yourself to feel it. While understanding the cause of difficult emotions can be important, so is allowing yourself to feel and experience them.
Expert tip: Notice when you are intellectualising and instead name the emotion and ask yourself: where am I feeling this emotion in my body?
Mistake #5 – Overusing distraction
Distraction can be a helpful coping strategy in the short term if used sparingly. However, when overused, it quickly becomes an avoidance strategy, which is not beneficial in the long term as it prevents the healthy processing of emotions.
Expert tip: Try journalling or writing down how you feel in difficult moments. If this isn’t possible, try the P.B.N.N strategy: Pause, Breathe, Notice and Name the emotion. This strategy helps you observe the feeling rather than getting too caught up in it, and then you are better positioned to choose how you respond.
Mistake #6 – Assuming permanence of emotions
When experiencing painful emotions, we often assume they will last forever and never end. Believing that you will always feel a certain way is unhelpful and inaccurate. Emotions are transient; they come and go, they shift and change.
Expert tip: Remind yourself that emotions are temporary, and you have control over how you respond to them.
Mistake 7# - Expecting others to take feelings away
It is natural to turn to a loved one when we feel painful emotions. It is integral to connecting with others; sharing our pain can be a healthy way to process difficult emotions. On the other hand, expecting others to take the pain away is unrealistic – no one can take away an internal experience you are having.
Expert tip: Develop your ability to manage difficult emotions through breathing exercises to help ground you and name and observe the emotion rather than overidentifying with it. Being self-compassionate by offering yourself calming words or phrases can also help.
It can be easy to make mistakes when coping with painful feelings. But, once you are aware of them, you can start to build your emotional regulation skills, as outlined here, to manage emotions more effectively.