What Doesn’t Work in Dealing with Difficult Emotions—And What Does
Many of Becky Butler’s clients struggle to identify and express their anger. They see it as a difficult emotion to experience—so they don’t.
“Processing and expressing anger can feel intimidating and might make people feel out of control,” said Butler, LPC, ATR-BC, a psychotherapist and board-certified art therapist who works with clients to help meet goals, change unhealthy behaviors, discover new strengths, improve self-expression, and encourage healing. And naturally no one likes to feel out of control.
Michele Burstein’s clients have a hard time with emotions “they believe are viewed negatively, make them seem vulnerable, or put them at risk for conflict.” This also includes anger, along with sadness, fear, shame and jealously.
This is understandable. We receive messages, particularly from society and sometimes our families, that negative emotions are bad, while happiness and positivity are preferred and glorified.
“[A]s children and throughout our lives we’re taught that any emotion that is not positive means something is wrong or even worse, that we as individuals are wrong or bad,” said Jennifer Silvershein, LMSW, an individual and couples therapist in New York City. After all, when someone seems upset, it’s common to literally ask, what’s wrong?
“When we’re told being happy and being OK is the most acceptable way to be, of course, as humans we will do anything to return to what we consider a homeostasis,” Silvershein said.
And we often do try anything. We bottle up our emotions. We pretend they don’t exist. We drink them away, sipping a glass or five of wine, convincing ourselves it’s a harmless escape or a legitimate form of relaxation. We isolate ourselves, or lose ourselves in toxic relationships. We cram our days with work, errands, chores and tasks so that when it’s time for sleep, we collapse into bed from being so busy.
In other words, we don’t leave “any space…to process, reflect or feel any thoughts or feelings that come up,” Silvershein said.
Bottling up our emotions is unhealthy. For starters, it spikes our stress levels and clouds our thinking, Butler said. And the emotions still show up, just in not-so helpful ways: We snap at our spouse. We have less patience with our kids.
Bottling up also is ineffective: It’s “temporary, and likely [you’ll] experience this same emotion again,” said Burstein, a medical social worker helping clients cope with acute and chronic medical issues as well as the varying mental health issues it creates, such as depression, anxiety, and low self-esteem.
When you’ve spent years suppressing your feelings, it’s not easy to start experiencing them. It might feel scary or even strange. These techniques can help you start the process.
Reflect on what the emotion means to you. “Different emotions mean different things for each individual,” Silvershein said. This is why she believes that exploring what clients decide an emotion means about them is a powerful way to break down the barriers to experiencing and expressing emotions.
For instance, she said, you’re feeling sad and assume you can’t tolerate your sadness, so you decide to ignore it. Or you think sadness makes you weak, so you pretend it doesn’t exist. Or you’re sad but nothing terrible happened, so you label yourself as dramatic and assume you don’t deserve to feel better.
Use writing. All the therapists stressed the importance of journaling about your feelings. “I usually ask clients to just write out whatever comes to mind, no matter how aggressive or uncomfortable it might be,” Butler said. “There is a lot of power in letting those thoughts out.”
In addition, you might write about a time you’ve experienced this same emotion, which is what Silvershein suggests to her clients, “to help them realize they will come out of this and survive.”
Another writing technique is to compose a letter to a person or group, which you don’t send, Butler said. “[S]ometimes it feels really great to imagine that you are sharing your true feelings.”
Use art. Butler likes to use physical art mediums, such as clay, to help clients release their anger. “Clay helps engage the physical side of feeling angry.” Other techniques for painful emotions include creating a collage of your feelings, and drawing a safe space, whatever that is for you. (Learn more here.)
Use movement. You might run or participate in other fast-paced physical activities, such as boxing, to release anger or anxiety. Or you might prefer dancing or a gentler yoga practice. Butler uses an exercise called “robot-ragdoll” with kids, but it can be helpful for adults, too. “We do intervals of flexing our muscles like a robot and then relaxing our muscles like we are a ragdoll. It helps engage our muscles and the emotions we are experiencing, and then helps release any tense feelings.”
Try the container technique. Butler uses this technique with her clients when they can’t sit with a feeling for too long and need a break. She asks them to close their eyes and imagine a container or box that’s comforting and safe. Together they describe the container and imagine using it. Next, one at a time, clients put each uncomfortable feeling, thought and memory into the container. “We then reflect on the safe and calm feeling we have as we are able to contain our emotions.” They also talk about returning to the box to process the emotions, so the client doesn’t avoid what they put in.
When we see an emotion as difficult, we often come to the conclusion that we have no other option but to ignore it and pretend it doesn’t exist, Silvershein said. But this ultimately doesn’t work. Because emotions don’t evaporate. Instead, they stick around and usually just grow bigger.
Try the above techniques. Process your feelings with someone you trust, or consider seeing a therapist. And remember it’s absolutely normal to feel a range of emotions. It’s part of being human.
Tartakovsky, M. (2018). What Doesn’t Work in Dealing with Difficult Emotions—And What Does. Psych Central. Retrieved on November 29, 2020, from https://psychcentral.com/blog/what-doesnt-work-in-dealing-with-difficult-emotions-and-what-does/