How do you normally react when you're feeling something difficult or unpleasant? Do you find yourself going down a rabbit hole of trying to make it go away? Trying anything to make yourself feel better? Worrying about why you feel that way? (By the way, worry about worry is called meta-worry!) Or do you get sucked into the feeling and struggle to get back out?
There are so many ways that we can struggle with our feelings when things get tough. Whether it's sadness, overwhelm, guilt, shame, anger, anxiety, worry, or all of the above - most of us have not been taught how best to handle "negative" feelings and so we tend to try lots of things to get rid of them. However, unfortunately, many of these things actually make things worse.
Welcome to the paradox
So what can we do instead? One of the most useful things I have learnt in my 20 years of psychology is that the more we struggle, the worse things get, and that paradoxically, the more we allow our difficult feelings to be where they are, without trying to make them go away, the more likely they are to gradually subside. It's just like quicksand. The more you struggle, the faster you sink. The more you can relax and allow yourself to accept the situation, the more chance you have of finding a way out.
It's just like quicksand. The more you struggle, the faster you sink.
So how can we avoid the struggle, and allow ourselves to feel how we feel instead? It's simple, but it's not easy - and it takes practice.
One caveat is that we need to have a base level of emotional safety in order to be able to try riding out our feelings, rather than pushing them away. We need to be able to tolerate the feelings and know that ultimately, they won't overwhelm us, and they will gradually subside and pass. That all emotions are ok, even the ones that feel bad, and they bring us messages about our underlying needs. If you have experienced trauma (acute or complex), you may not feel safe to try this and if that's the case, I would recommend seeking psychological support to help you process your trauma in the first instance.
If you do want to give it a go, the next time you feel something you don't like, or feel a urge to push it away or fix it, escape it or resist it... Try out the 3 Ls instead:
1. Label. Give what you are feeling a name. Simply labelling our emotions aloud is scientifically proven to help us regulate them.
2. Locate. Where do you feeling most strongly? Knowing where you feel an emotion in your body can help you to allow it to be there, without it overwhelming you. Breathe into that place to create space for it to exist.
3. Let it be. Do the opposite of pushing it away. After you name how you feel, repeat the phrase "...and that's ok" to help you to remember that all feelings are human, and will pass by.
If you notice that this is hard, just remind yourself - that's ok too!
What should I do next?
When we're feeling something hard or unpleasant, while we don't want to push it away, we do want to soothe ourselves. Imagine how a mother might comfort and soothe her child, allowing the tears and cuddling them away. We want to cradle ourselves in much the same way, if we can. This is hard, especially if we didn't experience this kind of comfort as a child when we felt big feelings. Again, if this feels unsafe to you, psychological therapy tailored to you could help. For those of us to whom it just feels alien, we can build up our self-compassion skills with practice and patience. The Let It Be step is often the first stage.
On other option is to capitalise on the fact that our brains respond to physical touch and self-talk in the same way as when it comes from someone else. It can soothe us quickly. Our brains are wired for social connection.
Our brains respond to physical touch and self-talk in the same way as when it comes from someone else.
Maybe try stroking one hand with the other, or put your hand on your heart and breathe into it. See how it feels, see how your body feels when you do this. Give it a try, even if it feels a bit strange to start with.
Learning new ways to handle our emotions
If you're interested in learning more about these skills, we cover them in more detail in The Guilty Parent Club. Check it out or send me a message to see if you'd like to join us!
If you think you might benefit from 1:1 support, book a free consultation with me here.
What do you think to the 3Ls? Let me know below.