I was facilitating a webinar last week and invited parents to write a word or two into the chat that described how they were feeling. The waterfall of words that emerged painted a pretty discouraging picture.
“Drained.” “Abandoned.” “Overwhelmed.” “Exhausted.”
One participant offered more detail. “I am so sick of being worried! I feel like I am in a battle with despair and I am losing.”
This parent isn’t alone. Many of us feel like we are struggling to manage negative emotions – whether it’s rage, fatigue, worry, or grief.
Whether We Advance or Retreat – Battling Our Emotions Tends to Backfire
It turns out though that trying to fight our feelings off usually gives them even more power.
Let’s take worry as an example. When worry or anxiety start to take over our mind space, it’s tempting to employ a number of battle strategies to try to feel better, including:
- Avoiding it. This looks like refusing to acknowledge that worry has arrived or trying to ignore it altogether. This might sound like, “What – me? Worried? Nope! Not at all!”
- Fighting it. This looks like taking an antagonistic stance to our feelings or ourselves for having them. This might sound like, “I refuse to feel this!” Followed by, “What is wrong with me that I can’t handle this?”
- Over-reassuring or fixing it. This looks like trying to assuage worry by relentlessly providing or seeking reassurance or jumping to fix it. We might ask friends or family to reassure us, seek out social media posts that make us feel better, or compulsively check for evidence that the worry is unfounded. This might sound like, “Tell me (over and over again) that this is going to be okay.”
On its face, all of these strategies make sense! Negative feelings can be really uncomfortable, and it’s natural to try any mental gymnastics that will help us cope. And of course there are situations where suppressing our emotions or distracting ourselves momentarily makes a lot of sense.
But regularly using battle or retreat strategies actually tends to cause more distress. Yale professor Dr. Laurie Santos notes, “During COVID there’s been a lot of negative emotions going around. Our instinct can be to run away from them, but the research shows that there’s not a very smart strategy.” Facing our emotions, even the difficult ones, is an essential part of our emotional health and wellbeing . As emotion researcher Dr. Susan David reminds us, ignoring difficult emotions inadvertently amplifies them. In contrast, facing our thoughts and emotions willingly and with curiosity helps us learn from them and build a toolkit for handling them.
Befriend Your Emotions Instead
Our feelings, whether they are comfortable or not, serve a function and can give us important information about our lives and our wellbeing. So instead of engaging in battle with our feelings, we might try befriending them instead. And teaching our kids to do the same. Let’s start with these three steps:
Greet your emotions by their names.
When someone knows your name, they have given you one of the greatest gifts in the world. That’s because knowing someone’s name tells them that they are seen, known, and connected. Our feelings deserve the same respect. So the first step is to pause and name the specific emotions you are experiencing. Notice where they are sitting in your body. Are you feeling disappointed? Angry? Worried? Constricted? Wobbly? Resentful? Do you need to learn a new name that better fits what you are feeling? This is partly why the article on languishing was so wildly popular last year. It finally put a name to something many of us were feeling. We felt seen, known, and more connected.
Thank your emotions for visiting.
Even if a friend approaches whom we don’t want to see in that moment, we usually still thank them for the visit. We can do the same thing with feelings. For example, we might say, “Hi worry! I understand you are here to try to keep me safe. Thanks for visiting.” Or, “Oh grief. It makes so much sense that you are visiting me today.”
When you welcome a friend, you also don’t immediately switch to a different task in front of them. Yet our impulse is to fix, remedy, or distract from feelings the moment they arrive. For example, checking COVID case rates the minute worry shows up is a bit rude! It just arrived! Instead, sit with it for a beat. Research shows that strong emotions behave a lot like waves, with intensity peaking and then receding. This is especially true if we don’t resist or stir up the waters.
Listen, learn, and go on your way.
Our friends usually have a lot to teach us, but only if we are open to what they are saying. Likewise, our feelings can tell us a lot about the realities of our lives – from our relationships to our systems. But Dr. Susan David urges us to see our feelings as “data not directives.” Being willing to learn from our emotions doesn’t mean they get to dictate what we do next. Instead, we can ask for healthy space, practice other expression or containment strategies, or act on what we’ve learned. For example, you might say, “Sadness, I know you are here to stay for a while but I need to go outside and take a walk right now and then advocate for paid parental leave.” Or, “Loneliness, thanks for reminding me that I need to reach out to a friend today.” Some emotions, especially those that tend to lie to us about our capabilities, might need an even stronger boundary. For example, “I know you are here to keep me safe worry, but I know that I can handle this.”
Friends or foes?
Things are really hard right now and it makes sense that many parents and kids are experiencing intense emotions. These feelings have a lot to teach us, especially about the kinds of systems of support that are actually required for families to thrive. They are intense signals about the personal and collective work we need to engage in moving forward. In the day-to-day, we will be much more prepared to do this work if we treat our feelings as friends rather than foes. What a powerful lesson for our kids.