When my son was a toddler, I spent much of my day helping him navigate his big emotions. There was his outrage at having to wear pants every single day; his tears over having to go to sleep at a reasonable hour; his utter despondence about not getting to eat ice cream for every meal. While these all seem like outsized reactions to adults, we actually aren’t all that different — we, too, battle our anger over a shitty work situation, our grief from a rough break up, or our fears about the uncertainty of the future.
As adults, though, we tend to do what toddlers don’t do — we attempt to suppress them. But that can backfire on us in the form of repetitive thoughts, our own emotional outbursts, or sleepless nights. Our emotions may not make sense to us, they may not seem logical or mature, and we may not want to go through the pain and discomfort of dealing with them, but they are real, and they need to be dealt with.
“If we battle our emotions, that’s how [we] get stuck,” said Alex Wills, a psychiatrist and author of the book Give a F*ck, Actually: Reclaim Yourself With the 5 Steps of Radical Emotional Acceptance. “It’s because [we’re] denying parts of ourselves.”
Rather than dismissing our uncomfortable emotions, Wills recommends accepting them to find ways to learn from them. “If we can accept every emotion as purposeful and good in some way, especially the painful and unpleasant ones, they’re actually trying to help us,” Wills said. “Every painful emotion has a flip side,” which is often about desire.
The painful emotions that come after a breakup, for example, are often about the desire for things like intimacy, trust, connection, and companionship. In Wills’ experience, “the level of intensity is proportionate to the level of desire we have to get our needs met.”
Emotional acceptance comes in five stages
As Wills often advises his patients, handling your big emotions comes in five stages. The first stage is putting down your emotional shield, or as he phrases it, “putting down your fuck shield.” Instead of saying, “I don’t give a fuck,” when something upsetting happens, he suggests simply admitting that you do care about it.
Putting down your “fuck shield” is also about identifying your deflection strategies — cracking a joke, for example — that are your ways of avoiding the deeper, more painful emotions. The next time something upsetting happens, he suggests taking a few moments to observe what the full range of your emotional reaction is. If your first instinct is to crack that joke and then move on, when in fact you are shaken up about what happened, then humour is your deflection strategy.
Once you have a better sense of when you are deflecting, rather than confronting your deeper, more painful emotions, the second stage is to start naming these emotions. Although this sounds simple, as Wills writes in his book, “When we experience an emotion we consider negative, we tend to want to press fast forward.”
Instead, he recommends slowing down, and examining the emotions, no matter how trivial or illogical they may seem, as they are offering insight into what you truly care about. It may be something as small as being irritated that your favourite ice cream flavour was discontinued, or something as big as the fears of abandonment that build up whenever you fight with your partner, but all of these emotions are a window into your hopes and fears.
Once you’ve named these emotions, then it’s time for the third stage: listening to them. Your favourite ice cream flavour might evoke a happy childhood memory from an easier, more innocent time in your life. Whatever the emotions may be, they are offering valuable information about what it is you truly care about. Instead of glossing over the emotions, or trying to skip past them, Wills recommends taking the time to listen to what they are trying to say.
The fourth stage is acting on this emotional knowledge; that might mean taking the steps to either end or mend a fractured relationship, making the decision to spend more time with your family, or finding the time to chase after a long-forgotten dream. “You’re using your full emotional intelligence, with all of your emotional data, to better inform your decisions,” Wills said. Once you have listened to your emotions, you can tap back into your intellectual, logical side, using the combination of the two to make the best decision.
Finally, the fifth stage is to thank the emotions. Our emotions may not be comfortable, they may not seem logical, but they are a window into our desires, and if we are willing to listen, they can help us make the best decisions for our own lives.
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