Difficult Emotions – Choosing A New Response
Learning how to process emotions is an ongoing process. As I’m writing this, just a few days after Christmas 2020, the whole of Europe is deep into the 3rd wave of the Covid-19 pandemic.
For many of us, this has been a year filled with emotions. Challenging emotions. Emotions, we are usually very good at avoiding or ignoring, but this year, they have been right in our face.
You might have had a lot on your plate even before all this started. For many of us, Covid-19 comes as ‘the last drop’ that makes us cross the subtle line between feeling overstretched and … totally overwhelmed.
Maybe you’re feeling anxious, agitated or frustrated. Or maybe, just the opposite: apathetic and unmotivated.
Emotional overwhelm has two faces – one is intense and feels like our emotions are all over the place. The other is heavy & slow and feels like a deep fog. Unfortunately, each of them can take over our lives and drain all our energy and zest for life.
How To Process Emotions With Increased Self Awareness
The other day I came across a brilliant metaphor of what an emotional overwhelm can feel like. I found it in a book I got as a Christmas gift, where a teenage girl character describes it like that:
“It’s the cold fish dying in your stomach feeling. You try to forget about it, but as soon as you do, the fish starts flopping around under your heart and reminds you that something truly horrible is happening”
R. Ozeki ‘A Tale For The Time Being’
I am sure you can recognize this feeling. Maybe you even know it very well. And it might have nothing to do with the pandemic. This is exactly what anxiety, grief, past trauma, deep resentment or even guilt can feel like.
Whatever the reason, if you feel like you’ve been living with a cold, dying fish underneath your heart, let me share with you what helped me and plenty of my coaching clients to regain more freedom, peace of mind and emotional balance.
You Can Choose To Learn How To Process Your Emotions
- REALIZE THAT YOU ALWAYS HAVE THE CHOICE.
One of my favourite authors writing about the power of choice is Edith Edgar, a clinical psychologist and also a survivor of Auschwitz. Her deeply moving book “The Choice” explains perfectly how although we do not have much control over what we have to face in life, we always have the choice how we respond.
However obvious the truth might seem, for many years I had a lot of resistance towards it. I repeatedly found my ‘responses’ to be quite negative and although I did not like them at all, I felt there was little I could do to change that.
When things didn’t go my way — I felt disappointed or angry. When people I loved disappeared from my life — I was heartbroken. When I made, what I considered, stupid or wrong decisions — I felt guilty and ashamed.
Hearing that I had a choice, well….used to make me feel quite annoyed.
It took me a long time to realise that I was looking for ‘choice’ in all the wrong places.
We are not responsible for the feelings that come up as reactions to situations and events around us. They are automatic and habitual responses that we have developed as a result of different factors, most of which were beyond our control.
But we do have the choice how we respond to our automatic reactions. We can choose how we manage and handle them.
Our choice is either to dismiss, suppress or act our emotions out on others or to notice and acknowledge them with respect and compassion.
We may also choose to dwell on them for days or weeks (and sometimes years) and allow them to poison our wellbeing, physical health and relationships. Or, we can choose to self-soothe and self-regulate and thus regain our power and freedom.
Unraveling The Victim Mentality Is A Process Worth Pursuing
2. REMEMBER THAT YOU ARE NOT THE VICTIM
Once you acknowledge that although you have little control over your automatic emotional reactions, you are in charge of how you handle them, you are ready to reclaim your power over your emotional wellbeing.
The true game-changer here is your beautiful ability to self-soothe and self-regulate.
This ability is available to all of us, no matter how intense or painful our emotional reaction might be.
Some of us learnt how to use it early in life (as we were all supposed to) but even if you didn’t, you can quickly get the idea and see that it works miracles in times of emotional overwhelm.
Recognizing that you CAN regulate your emotions (instead of trying to numb them, ignore them or spare no effort to distract yourself from them) is a huge step towards breaking free from being stuck in the victim role.
Our emotions can be so overwhelming because they often seem all-encompassing. We often have the impressions that they are bigger and more powerful than we are, and we feel like powerless victims as a result. But we never are.
Emotions are just energy in motion.
They are like clouds in the sky. Sometimes fluffy and blue, sometimes dark and stormy. But they come and go.
You are not the clouds, YOU ARE THE SKY.
You are not your fear. You are not your sadness. You are not your anger.
You are so much more than any of these emotions.
And because you are so much bigger and more powerful you can learn how to contain your emotions without being overwhelmed and overpowered by them.
All you need to do is to learn how to take gentle and resourceful action.
Soothing & Regulating Your Emotions With Intentional Actions
3. TAKE GENTLE AND RESOURCEFUL ACTION
Ok, so now that you know you have the choice and the power to take proper care of your emotional balance and wellbeing, let’s get practical.
How to handle this cold, dying fish in your stomach, so that it doesn’t make you feel so unsettled?
Over the many years of my own personal journey and while accompanying my clients on theirs, I learnt that two things are most important when soothing and regulating your emotions.
- Your actions need to be gentle and compassionate. You don’t want to add any more stress and pressure to what you are already experiencing. Remember, when you feel emotionally overwhelmed you are at a very vulnerable place. You need to respect that. Instead of radical changes and big transformations, think about baby steps. Small hinges swing big doors.
- Your actions need to be resourceful. They need to be aligned with what your body, heart and mind need in any particular situation. What worked well for your anger last week, might be no good for the deep sadness you are experiencing today. That is why it is so essential to have a whole range of practices and rituals ready and waiting to be used when you get hijacked for a crazy ride by your emotions.
I have been using breathing techniques to calm and regulate myself for years, but I know that when I get anxious and agitated, no breathing is going to help me feel better. It is intense movement that does the trick then. And at other times nothing works better than a long bath 🙂
Experiment and take time to learn what works best for you and when.
Simple Self Care Tips – A New Approach To How You Process Emotions
This is a brief list of 5 easy and always accessible ways you can self-soothe and self-regulate when it all gets too much:
- breathing exercises — breath is your biggest ally. Free, always available and extremely helpful. It has the power to modulate and change the response of your whole nervous system within minutes. There are plenty of different tools and techniques available, so try various breathing exercises and see what works best for you.
- using the power of touch — touch is one of your superpowers when you need to calm yourself down! We often use it spontaneously and intuitively – by rubbing our hands or cheeks, putting hands on our heart or hips, etc. So, the only thing you need to do is to start using it more intentionally!
- movement — have you ever noticed how small kids use rhythmical movements to regulate their nervous system? Well, you can do the same. Any rhythmical movement can help. Think: walking, rocking, swaying, swinging, skipping… Rhythmical movement, especially if you align it with your breath, will allow your nervous system to come back to balance really quickly.
- sounds -When you’re emotionally overwhelmed, your body is stuck in fight, flight or freeze response. Your nervous system is out of balance and this has far-reaching consequences for your physical health and mental wellbeing. You can use the power of sound to put your nervous system on the ‘rest and repair ‘ mode. These can be any sounds that feel calming and relaxing to you (or that boost your energy, if that is what you need! ):
- your favourite music
- whispering (eg. mantras, prayers)
- audiobooks, podcasts
- guided meditations
- nature sounds
- grounding objects — when we are emotionally overwhelmed, we tend to do ‘space out’. We are stuck in our heads, dwelling on the future or past. Grounding means connecting back to your physical reality, to your body and to the present moment. You can use natural stones, gemstones or crystals, which have various healing properties. But you can also make any object an “anchor” like that, your favourite mug, jewellery, a pen or a cushion.
In the book I mentioned before the girl shares her experience of ‘cold, dying fish’ in her stomach with her 104-year-old grandmother, and this is what she learns from her.
“ She said, she had lots of fishes, some that were small like sardines, some were medium-sized like carp, and other ones were as big as a bluefin tuna, but the biggest fish of all belonged to Haruki#1 (her son who died at war) and it was more like the size of a whale. She also said that after she became a nun and renounced the world, she learnt how to open her heart, so that the whale could swim away.”
R. Ozeki ‘A Tale For The Time Being’
3 Step System To Process Your Feelings And Make A Sustainable Change
I promise you, you don’t have to become a nun and renounce the world to let the dying fish, from beneath your heart, swim away.
What you do need, is just 3 steps:
- Recognize and use your choice to attend to your disturbed feelings with respect and compassion
- Recognize and use your power to comfort and soothe them
- Take gentle and compassionate action
Once you start implementing these 3 simple steps into your everyday life, you will stop getting overwhelmed so easily and so often. Instead, you will build your emotional strength and resilience and start to experience more and more easiness, peace of mind and emotional stability.
And never again will you feel like a powerless victim of your own emotions.
I have recorded a special mini-training where I share with you my simple but powerful 3-step formula to soothe and regulate your nervous system in times of overwhelm and come back to balance in the easiest and quickest way possible. You can watch it here.