These 3 Secrets Can Turn Your Emotions into Your Superpower | by Steph Sterner | Jul, 2024

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Life and Happiness

Fear, guilt, anger — like it or not, they’re part of life. Why not make use of them?

Woman looking shocked when she learns the truth
Image licensed to the author by Shutterstock.

That whole “difficult emotions” thing sucks.

Wouldn’t you love to press the off button when those nasty feelings show up? Imagine going through life without all that fear, frustration, and sadness. And guilt. And self-doubt. And… you get the idea. It would be amazing!

So why can’t we? Why are we hardwired to feel bad?

We’re used to seeing difficult feelings as something we just have to put up with — an annoying but unavoidable part of being human. But it turns out they’re far more valuable than you might think.

The obvious example is fear. Being afraid of snakes and hot stoves helps keep us away from them, so we don’t get bitten or burned. But these days, our fears aren’t usually so physical.

We’re afraid of loss, rejection, and conflict. We’re afraid of failure, whether that’s losing a client, going through a divorce, or disappointing our parents — even when we have kids of our own. We’re afraid of disappointing the people we care about. We’re afraid of being judged; we may even secretly believe we deserve it. We’re afraid of being alone.

When we’re faced with an emotionally risky situation, these fears come up and make us feel uncomfortable. That discomfort isn’t warning us about a snake or a hot stove; it’s telling us to be careful or showing us what we’re afraid of.

What could go wrong?

So far, so good. Difficult emotions can warn us to be careful (of hurtful people or tricky situations) or show us where we’re vulnerable. That’s valuable information. So why don’t we make better use of it?

One reason is that our emotions don’t come with a user’s manual, and we often misinterpret them. That’s easy to do; no one teaches us how to sort through them to find the truth.

We learn what’s dangerous through experience, mostly when we’re young. If disagreeing with a parent leads to rejection, humiliation or beatings, we learn that disagreeing with people (or at least powerful people) is dangerous. Repeated messages that you can’t trust anyone outside the family make the whole world seem dangerous. If your peers reject you when you’re just doing you, you learn that it’s not safe to be your authentic self.

So when you’re out with your friends, you may get a bad feeling when you disagree with one of them. You keep your opinions to yourself because you interpret that feeling as a warning: Shut up or risk rejection. You’ve missed the most important part of the message: that it’s time to heal the childhood wounds that are stopping you from being yourself.

Of course, those messages aren’t always about your emotional patterns. When you get a bad feeling about someone, pay attention. Sure, he might be triggering some unresolved issues around your alcoholic father. But he might also be a narcissistic, love-bombing predator who will take over your life if you let him.

No one likes emotional pain, and it’s tempting to run away from it. We can do that by avoiding difficult situations, pretending everything’s OK, or giving people what they want so they’ll leave us alone. This gives us a temporary sense of relief, but nothing more.

Some people are experts at avoiding trouble, and that can be a good thing. If you know your cousin wants to borrow money again, you might want to avoid taking his calls for the next few hours. Chances are someone else in the family will help him out. But if every message sounds more desperate than the last, and you value your relationship, you’ll pay a steep price for running away. You’ll probably feel guilty for avoiding him and worried about how it will affect your relationship. But if you lend him money when you don’t want to, you’ll resent him for it. Either way you lose.

That’s the thing about moving on. It’s great when you’ve been stuck in traffic. All you have to do is keep driving and get on with your day. But if the guy behind you loses his brakes and crashes into you, you don’t just keep driving as if nothing happened. You get the other driver’s insurance info so you’re not stuck with the bill. You call your mechanic (and possibly a tow truck). And you may schedule an appointment with your doctor or chiropractor. You can’t move on properly without doing those things.

It’s the same with our emotions. We can move on quickly from the small stuff — but it’s not all small stuff. If your emotions are strong, you need to deal with them.

Fortunately, that’s not as difficult as it seems. You don’t have to deal with every little thing — or even the big things — in the moment. We all want to avoid emotional pain, and running away from it is only human. If you’re having dinner with your in-laws and you’re triggered by something small, you probably want to keep quiet. If you get some bad news while you’re at work, you can focus on the job. There’s no need to deal with your feelings in a public place.

When you get home, the voice in your head says things like, “Stop wallowing in it. You can’t change , so just get over it and move on over it!”

Don’t listen to that voice.

Feeling your feelings is not the same as wallowing in them. The fact that you can’t change things doesn’t mean your feelings don’t matter. Feeling them may not change the situation, but it will help you deal with it.

So how do you do that?

If you’re used to pushing your feelings away, facing them can feel a bit scary. Here are some ways to get started without getting overwhelmed.

Start a Journal

Get yourself a journal (or a notebook, or whatever works for you) and set aside some time to write. You can do this once a week, once a day, or whenever you feel like you need it. When the time comes, think about whatever you’re struggling with and start writing. Don’t worry about spelling or grammar. Don’t play with the words until you get it right. Just write whatever comes to you.

You can set a timer to make sure you don’t quit too soon, or you can just go until the flow stops. Once you’ve done it for a while, you can read what you’ve written and highlight anything that seems important.

If you notice that your writing is more about events and other people than how you feel, you can put a prompt at the top of each page: “How do I feel about this?”. Then when you catch yourself focusing out there, ask yourself that question. If your answer is, “I feel like my husband doesn’t appreciate me,” that’s a great start. Now go deeper. What happens inside yourself when you think about that? Do you feel angry, frustrated, disappointed, lonely, resentful — or something else entirely? Do you remember someone else who didn’t appreciate you? Go back to that memory and write about it.

If you write whatever comes and gently shift your focus to your inner world, you’ll be amazed at what you can learn about yourself over time.

Express Your Feelings Physically

Some people go for a run when they’re feeling agitated or emotional. That certainly can help. I suggest a more direct approach, at least once in a while.

Go somewhere private like a bedroom or home office. Close the door, and if you’re within earshot of others, consider putting on some music. Then set a timer. You might start with five minutes.

Think about whatever’s bothering you. Allow yourself to feel — and express — any emotions that come up. If you feel sad, let yourself cry. If you feel angry or frustrated, try stomping around the room or kneeling on the floor in front of a sofa or soft chair and pounding your fists into it. If you have space outdoors, you could go for an angry walk, stomping around until you it feels like you’re done.

When you first try this, you may find it difficult. That’s what the timer’s for. If nothing comes in five minutes, that’s OK. Congratulate yourself for making the effort and try again tomorrow or a few days from now. The more you do it, the easier it will get.

If you don’t feel safe letting your feelings out, or your mind goes blank every time, you might find the journaling exercise easier. Or you might try talking to a friend instead.

Just do something!

You don’t have to master your emotions overnight. Start small, and do whatever works for you. Like anything else, it gets easier with practice. And unlike some things in life, it is worth the effort!

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