Learning to Manage Difficult Feelings May Help You Cope in a Challenging Time

Deborah J Fox, MSW

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The answer may be counterintuitive to many of you. We humans don’t like to be uncomfortable or in emotional pain. How many times have you been told, or tell yourself, “Buck up, don’t wallow, move on, don’t feel sorry for yourself, think of how many others have it worse than you?” Plenty, I’m sure. The conventional wisdom of our culture is full of “think positive thoughts.” The problem is that this wisdom doesn’t chart the path we need to follow to that end.

The answer to managing difficult feelings is that we have to feel them before we can move on and regain our optimism and good cheer. This isn’t easy. What may become common parlance, “Oh, it’s a total 2020,” meaning a downer and that things couldn’t get much worse, is indicative of what many of you may be experiencing. As I write this, we’re still in the middle of a pandemic with an unknown trajectory, uncontrolled climate change with wildfires, hurricanes and tornadoes decimating lives, lands and wildlife, amidst a divisive political undertone. How can you not feel sad, or worry, or despair some days?

Maybe your distress isn’t about current times. Maybe you struggle with a host of other uncomfortable feelings such as feeling unimportant, insecure or anxious on an ongoing basis. For many people the stress of what’s going on in world now is exacerbating those feelings.

Our emotional system is not designed to allow us to feel only positive feelings and blot out the negative ones. That would be nice, but it just isn’t so. In order to find our joy in simple pleasures and with those we’re most connected to, we also have to feel our way through the tough ones.

What You Can Do When Difficult Feelings Show Up

The key is to build your capacity for feeling these difficult feelings and turn towards each other for connection and support. We’re social creatures through and through, and we need each other to go through the middle of turmoil in order to come out the other side. Tuning into these feelings will inevitably make you feel more vulnerable simply because you won’t be pushing the discomfort away. This is a challenge because feeling more vulnerable is uncomfortable, too.

However, it’s in that state of vulnerability that you can truly connect with another human being. You’ll feel less alone and you can walk through these uncertain times together, rather than just coping in separate silos.

There are moments - milliseconds, really - that you can grab before they slip away. These are the moments when you can identify that you’re feeling down, worried, or despairing. When you’re trying to “move on” or distract yourself, you’ll find yourself feeling more and more blah or irritable - the perfect hiding places for vulnerable feelings.

If you succeed in identifying that you’re feeling sad or anxious in the moment, just sit there with it. “Sitting with it,” means naming it, feeling it, and not allowing yourself to prematurely make it go away by distracting yourself. You will feel uncomfortable and vulnerable. Take a deep breath and just stay there in that feeling. This “sitting with” the uncomfortable feeling allows you to know what is actually affecting you that you lose touch with when you shut down on the feelings.

Uncomfortable feelings have a life span. It might be five minutes or five hours, and it may come and go. It’s sitting with the feelings that allows you to build your tolerance for feeling vulnerable. You build it slowly, bit by bit. The more tolerance you have, you can allow its life span to run its course. If you distract yourself by grabbing your phone or turning on the TV, it’ll just go underground and lie in wait to ruin your mood for days on end.

Sitting with the feeling allows you to express it, hopefully in a way that your partner, or a close friend, can hear and empathize with it. Their ears open when they hear you speak from that place of vulnerability. Feeling this connection is what can most alleviate the intensity of the discomfort. It won’t make the uncertainties of the pandemic or anything else go away, but it can allow you to feel less alone. Feeling less alone goes a long way to walking through any crisis feeling stronger.

Shutting down or arguing happens so easily because it’s a momentary relief from the discomfort. The energy of arguing or the numbness of withdrawing doesn’t feel great either, but it can be preferable to feeling vulnerable.

If you’re already angry or withdrawn, ask yourself, “What else am I feeling, or what was I feeling earlier?” Maybe not immediately, but this question will allow you over time to pinpoint what feelings are hiding just below the surface. You know you’re irritated, but you might be able to identify that you were anxious before you got annoyed. Then you can choose to sit with the anxiety.

The Bottom Line

Difficult feelings are a normal part of life. This is always true, but these uncertain times are causing tremendous turmoil and challenging our usual ways of coping. What’s critical is not to allow these feelings to overwhelm us. We’re outside of our comfort zone and we need to grow that zone in order to go forward and be able to grapple with what comes our way. We can’t do it alone. Turning towards one another will serve us well and allow us to come out the other side to be able to experience joyful moments amidst uncertainty.

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Deborah Fox is a couples and sex therapist. She is passionate about supporting relationships and writes on topics that help couples grow and sustain the emotional connection in their relationships.

Washington, DC

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