The Challenge of Difficult Emotions

Categories: Children, Faith issues, Family, Mental Health, Parenting, and Personal Growth.

Fear.  Shame.  Anger.  Boredom.  Sadness.  Disgust.  These are feelings we don’t enjoy, and we can often go to great lengths to avoid them.  This was documented centuries ago by Blaise Pascal, who is quoted to say “All men’s miseries derive from not being able to sit in a quiet room alone.”   We try to suppress these emotions, especially fear and shame.  However, as Brené Brown has noted, emotions are like the old string of Christmas lights: when we deny or turn off one light bulb (such as anger) the whole string goes out.  Essentially, we become emotionally disabled in our attempts to avoid feeling our feelings.

The ability to experience the full range of emotions is part of being a whole and healthy individual.  When we deny or refuse to acknowledge an emotional experience we are denying something within our own selves. We become disconnected from our selves and our self-awareness becomes very limited.  In this time of opioid epidemics, and addictions of all sorts, this issue could not be more important to address!  I want you to think about why we have so many people in the mid-Ohio Valley addicted to pain pills and heroin.  Don’t you think its because those people are trying to avoid difficult emotions?  The pain many are trying to alleviate isn’t physical as much as it is emotional pain.

When we help our children increase their capacity to handle their emotions, we are actually equipping them to face everyday problems with strength.  We must teach our children to not be afraid of their feelings, but to see them as an important part of their human experience.   They’ll be much less likely to turn to addictive substances if they feel strong enough to cope with the hard times that life will most certainly bring to them.  We can work to increase our emotional pain tolerance.

How do we do this emotional training?  First, we have to model it.  So everything else that is discussed here must first be applied to yourself before you can really help your child.  With that said, an important first step is to learn how to be present in the moment.  Breathe in, breathe out, feel your heart beating and notice what is going on inside you and outside of you.  Observe how you feel and how others around you seem to be feeling in the present moment.  Teach your children to stay connected to the present moment when they are anxious about the future or upset about something that happened in the past.  Learn to be quiet and refrain from distracting yourself in the present moment and just let yourself be a human being, not a human doing.

Next, think about how the emotions you are feeling are connected to what is important to you.    Our fears are often that what is important to us, or what we need the most will be taken away from us.  It’s best to stay focused on your priorities, hopes, and values instead of your fears.  Anything we value in life will put us in touch with pain and discomfort.  That’s life!   If you are striving to succeed, you must be willing to feel like a failure, to feel stupid and inadequate.  If you want love and belonging, you must be willing to risk rejection, insecurity and loneliness.  You must ask yourself, and your children, if these things (love, friendship, success) are important, then are you willing to experience these feelings?  Its part of the full range of life experience and it takes courage to live it out.

Nothing captures this issue as aptly as the poem “Anyway” by Mother Theresa:

“People are often unreasonable, illogical and self centered;

Forgive them anyway

If you are kind, people may accuse you of selfish, ulterior motives;

Be kind anyway

If you are successful, you will win some false friends and some true enemies;

Succeed anyway.

If you are honest and frank, people may cheat you;

Be honest and frank anyway.

What you spend years building, someone could destroy overnight;

Build anyway.

If you find serenity and happiness, they may be jealous;

Be happy anyway.

The good you do today, people will often forget tomorrow;

Do good anyway.

Give the world the best you have, and it may never be enough;

Give the world the best you’ve got anyway.

You see, in the final analysis, it is between you and God;

It was never between you and them anyway.”

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