Why I love to hang out with people going through dark times
As a coach, a place I like to hang out with people is in really difficult emotions, creating the space where someone can safely “go there” into strong negative feelings without getting “lost” in them. Self-compassion researcher Kristin Neff calls striking that balance between ignoring one’s experience and accepting it the third element of self-compassion, Mindfulness vs. Over-identification.
As I write on the topic of dealing with hard emotions, I’m thinking of being with a person who is struggling with a loved one’s unwillingness to take care of himself through an illness in the way she wants him to. Or the time I was with a person struggling with chronic pain and the accompanying thoughts and feelings of self-hatred, who was berating themselves daily for “getting themselves into this situation” and not making changes to affect their health earlier. These are just two off the top of my head.
But that space of mental anguish, heartache, and suffering is where I love to be with people because it’s solid and real. And this is the bedrock and jumping off space for true change, if you want it to be.
And if I’m really honest with myself, I’m also thinking of my own personal experience. Part of why this topic is so important to me is because I’m highly sensitive, empathic and tend to feel things deeply. And I recently experienced deep disappointment around being rejected from a position I applied for that I thought I really wanted, which left me feeling immersed in heartache.
How we get stuck: Emotional pain often comes from resisting and ignoring your emotions
As human beings, all of us are just trying to make our way through life the best we can — we’re often not where we want to be and are usually either moving towards or away from something, based on our desires. But there’s true value in simply being in the pain that you’re in, feeling the emotions associated with it, and not denying, resisting it, or pushing it away.
So much unnecessary suffering is not just from the actual thoughts and feelings in reaction to a circumstance but in perpetuating it through not allowing oneself to be honest about the human reaction you may have to something tough.
How do you know you’re kind of stuck in a negative emotion? Well, maybe you can’t stop thinking about a situation or an event. Or you’re lashing out at your dog for walking too slowly when this usually doesn’t bother you. If it’s been a long while, you might be experiencing headaches or some unexplained pain or inability to sleep well.
How to move through hard emotions: The only way out is through
Emotions actually have a beginning, middle, and end, and by allowing this normal flow to occur, even with really negative emotions, you can move through them more quickly instead of getting stuck.
Ways to move through your hard emotions in a helpful way, that allows them to express themselves without allowing them to take permanent residence, might include: mindful awareness, a breathing practice, a guided meditation, journaling, walking in nature or any other introspective activity that allows you to be present with yourself, the sensations in your body, and how you’re feeling, exercise, social connection, crying, etc.
For me personally when I was dealing with the realization the job I had wanted was no longer a possibility, I couldn’t control my emotional reaction and feelings of being let down. And so here’s what I did to care for myself to get through it:
I walked my dog, I did Kristin Neff’s self-compassion meditation, Soften, soothe, and allow (and I cried all through it). I texted a friend who reminded me of our shared appreciation of Byron Katie’s, The Work, and so I journaled. I cleared my afternoon of any mentally taxing work, and just literally gave myself a break. And because we don’t live in a vacuum and I have a wonderful family I’m grateful for — my daughter made me some tea, and later that night my husband and I went to a cafe near us to get out and gave me big hugs.
I also woke up later that night violently sick with diarrhea and what I attribute this to could be something I ate, or it could be me just processing all the negative emotions I went through during the day and literally getting rid of the sh*#. See my blog post on the metaphysical causes of illness.
When you get stuck or need help
Sometimes it can feel too hard or scary or simply not worth it to go there, when something is tender or painful, it’s natural to want to resist it or turn away.
But herein lies the value of working with someone who can accept you exactly as you are, without the judgment you harbor for yourself, but with unconditional positive regard, with empathy, and even compassion. It’s often easier for someone who isn’t subjectively mired in the emotions like you are to be that steady presence, modeling acceptance of what is going on for you in the present, without needing to change.
When you “go there” where it’s painful, dark, or scary, expressing it instead of keeping it inside, the sharing of the problem can make it less of a problem. I have so much respect and admiration for the people who I meet who are doing the heavy lifting, asking for help, trusting that things can get better, and doing the brave work of looking at themselves in order to heal.
So if you are feeling lost, please, please ask for help from a friend, a trained coach, counselor, physician, or spiritual leader. It may not feel like it in the moment, but the message from the negative emotions urging you to seek help, to change are just the beginning of the potential for positive changes in your life.
TL;DR (too long; didn’t read)
If you’re going through something tough and feeling down over something, marshaling the courage to be with the strong emotions can be a healthy way to cope and get through it faster.
Also, pain, shame, self doubt or any other negative emotion is literally lighter when it’s shared with the right person in psychologically safe space. There’s so much richness there just waiting to be mined, when you are ready and willing.