Making Space For Difficult Emotions

Mental Health

Dr. Happy

People have all sorts of expectations of Dr Happy, the Chief Happiness Officer of The Happiness Institute; and one of those is that I’ll exclusively write and talk about happiness. At the same time, most people assume I’ll be anti-unhappiness. 

Like most things in life, this is true and untrue! 

Surprisingly to some, the focus of my work is not really happiness; or not in the way most people think about it, anyway. More accurately, what I do (whether it’s writing or speaking or consulting or coaching) is promote the principles of Positive Psychology which rather than being “the science of happiness” as it’s sometimes labelled, is really the science of thriving and flourishing. 

In other words, my passion is helping as many people as possible live their best possible lives. 

Now in part, this involves positive emotions such as happiness. We can’t possibly live our best lives without a healthy dose of positivity, which includes happiness but also includes other positive emotions such as calm and contentment, satisfaction and pride, and others. 

At the same time, however, no one will be or should expect to be happy all the time. The so-called “negative emotions” (such as stress and anxiety, anger and frustration, sadness and grief) are normal and at times, perfectly appropriate. We learn from and even benefit from these “negative emotions”. They help us avoid risk and gain wisdom and add colour and richness to our existence. 

Accordingly, these should be and for most of us need to be integrated into the notion of living our best lives! And therein lies one of the secrets to making space for difficult emotions. We make space for things that are important; and so, if we recognise the importance of ALL emotions, including the “negative” or “painful” ones, then we can and will accept them into our lives and even appreciate them for the positives they can and do bring. 

Even still, recognition of the importance and acceptance of difficult emotions still doesn’t make it easy. From an early age we’re taught and encouraged to fight against and to resist them. “Don’t be upset” we’re told; “calm down” we’re advised. And these messages are conveyed with good intention. 

But the more resist, the more some things persist. And so, although those providing this advice are well-meaning the result might not ultimately be a desirable one because instead of alleviating distress it can serve to actually exacerbate it. 

To help with this process, therefore, we also need to learn how to sit with distress and to fight against the natural tendency to fight against it. There are a range of strategies that can help, and we all need to find what works best for us. But in short, the most common techniques worth trying include: 

  • Mindfulness: observing emotions with curiosity but without judgement (try not to label emotions as being either good or bad) 
  • Calming strategies such as one of the many forms of relaxation (mental and physical)
  • Grounding techniques: which typically include focusing on external stimuli (such as a sound or a sensation or a physical task) 

Remember, as always, that you don’t need to do any of this all on your own. Reaching out and asking for help and/or talking distressing emotions through with a loved one or friend can be very helpful. 

And finally, please persevere and practice. Like many things in life, the ability to make space for difficult emotions is much easier said than done. But like most things in life, also, with practice and persistence comes mastery. If you stick at it, it will get easier; and you’ll get better. And this is definitely something in life that’s worth getting better at.

Dr Happy

Please note: Dr Happy's blog is general advice only. For further information on this topic, please consult your healthcare professional.

Category:Mental Health

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