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In a tug-of-war with painful emotions? Here’s how to win

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*Note: this is a post from the archives updated for more current issues


When I receive emails from people who are in crisis, most of the time they want to know how they can get rid of the painful emotions they are experiencing.

“My son has been arrested for dealing drugs, and I had no idea he even knew about drugs, I never thought I would have to go through a drug testing process with him! I’m embarrassed, shocked, ashamed, and angry. How do I stop feeling this way so I can get on with my life again?

“I made some horrible financial decisions and now all my retirement and savings are gone. How can I stop feeling hopeless and worthless?

“I’m tired of feeling powerless and angry all the time because of the actions of Donald Trump. I just want to move to Timbuktu so I don’t feel this way and can get on with life.”

“My wife died two months ago and I’m still overwhelmed by sadness. I feel like I’ve lost my way in the world. How do I move through grief faster so I can have a life again?”

The assumption implicit in these questions is, “Painful feelings are bad and I need to get rid of them as soon as possible in order to get on with life.”

Because of this assumption, we may try to get rid of our feelings in a variety of ways: avoiding them, suppressing them, resisting them, or wishing they would hurry up and be over. This effort is a natural thing to do, since nobody likes pain.

The problem is that all of those resistance activities, while they might work in the short run, may magnify the feelings overall. There are two parts to this magnification mechanism:

1) The more we try not to think about something (“I’m not going to think about my grief,”) the more we think about it (see this post from the archives for more;) and,

2) Because we are thinking more about the painful feelings, we may start to add to them with judgmental thoughts such as, “This is the worst pain ever. I can’t stand this.”

Dropping the rope

Russ Harris, author of The Happiness Trap, likens this process to being in a tug-o-war with a monster who is trying to pull you into a pit. You pull as hard as you can against the monster of your painful feelings, only to find that the monster grows stronger each time you pull. What should you do? Pull even harder?

How about if you drop the rope?

This does not mean you give up and don’t take action when it is necessary. This is about letting go of the resistance to your painful feelings so they don’t pull you further into a pit.

Finding out your son is a drug dealer, financial devastation, putting up with a misogynstic, xenophobic, racist President, and losing your wife to cancer are life-shattering events. Painful feelings are sure to arise. Allow them to do so.

And, take action when it is needed.

Perhaps you’ll want to learn more about drugs and addiction so you’ll know how to best help your son. Financial loss may spur you to learn about budgeting and engender courage as you learn to start anew. Moving to Timbuktu is an action, but instead, perhaps you can discover ways to be politically active to feel a stronger sense of agency and effectiveness in the current political climate. Maybe you’ll want to join a grief group or see a therapist for support during your time of mourning.

The bottom line with life-altering traumatic events, as well as merely stressful everyday events, is that we often get too caught up in our minds with the negative thoughts and in our hearts where the painful feelings roil and stew.

With both severe and moderate crises, we can “drop the rope” by acknowledging that our thoughts aren’t particularly helpful right now and letting them go by, like leaves floating on a stream, and by allowing our feelings to just be rather than trying to get them to stop or leave.

By not resisting our experience, we may have access to more inner resources to creatively approach the problem facing us and take an active approach to solving it or figuring out a way to make it through a particularly difficult time.

What are your thoughts about these ideas? What do you do when you’re in a tug of war with painful feelings? (Click on ‘Leave a Comment’ at the top of the post)

Want more happiness? Do these 3 things

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While happiness is transient and I have even confessed to being irritated by it, it’s still a nice thing to experience when we can. In the video below, I list three things you can do immediately to make yourself happier.

I realize the video is long at a whopping 4 minutes, but hey, more happiness is worth it, isn’t it?



How to stay engaged during turbulent times


“I want to say that we need to stay vigilant,” I mused to my wife when describing what I wanted to assert in this post, “but ‘vigilant’ doesn’t sound quite right . . .”talking-politics

“How about ‘engaged?’” she proffered.

It’s good to be married to an English major.

Being engaged is exactly what we need right now.

Rather than shrugging our shoulders and giving in to what could become the new normal—an intolerant, fear-mongering government administration—we need to stay engaged with each other, with what is happening in our country, and with ways we can act up and speak out.

Three problems of staying engaged

Oh, we humans!

Our short attention spans are so challenged. They were like that prior to the electronics age, easily distracted by the next shiny thing. But now, with instant information on the Internet and so many shiny objects to distract us, I think gnats may be beyond us in ability to focus.gnat

And then there’s our natural inclination to revert to the norm. You might remember the research I cited in a previous blog post about happiness and how we usually go back to our set point of happiness no matter how good or bad things get in our lives.  Humans, at least in American culture, tend toward this norm-seeking behavior because we like to stay comfortable and we like to stick with what we know.

The third problem of staying engaged may be resiliency itself. Just like any characteristic, resiliency has its good parts and its not-so-good parts. One of the great things about resiliency is that we can often grow accustomed to a new normal when changes occur. And one of the not-so-great things about resiliency is that we can often grow accustomed to a new normal when changes occur.

Yes, you read that right.

Our ability to adapt can both help us and hurt us. While learning to adjust to something new in our lives often helps us function well and feel better, this same adaptability may also lull us into an unintended complacency.

And complacency is the enemy of engagement.

How many of us have disagreed with a political policy and not contacted our congressperson about it? How many of us have become outraged by a spate of hate crimes in our area but soon moved back toward our norm of thinking others will do something about it? How many of us have promised ourselves we’re going to be more active in our communities right after Monday-Night Football/I get my new iPad/my kids go off to college/I get that promotion/my life settles down?

So here we are: microscopic-attention-spanned, norm-seeking, adaptable lovers of complacency. How are we going to make a difference in our country and our communities?

By staying engaged.

If there is any time to overcome our natural tilt toward inertia, this is it.

How to stay engaged

It’s hard, this pull toward staying comfortable. You might remember my mea culpa in my last post.

To keep engaged, try these strategies:

  • Make a habit of reading the news. I know. This is a tough one. It’s okay to take breaks from reading and hearing bad news occasionally, but it’s also important to keep up to date on what is happening around you. Build some tolerance around this because staying unaware is taking steps down the road toward complacency. And be sure that the news you are reading is factual, not the fake news that is so prevalent now!


  • Hear stories from people who are affected on a daily basis. Join Pantsuit Nation on Facebook to read stories of heroism, anguish, joy, and courage as members post their experiences with hate crimes and harassment and their hope for our country. Look at MoveOn.org or search for a local group at Meetup.com.


  • Find like-minded people. One of the main components of resiliency is social support. Find people who think the way you do. Getting together regularly or just checking in once in a while will help you feel better and keep you engaged.


  • Find people who are not like-minded, but reasonable. What better way to understand the other side of an issue than to engage in discussion with someone on that side? When you go into a conversation with curiosity and willingness to hear, you can find common ground upon which to meet.


  • Set up some accountability for yourself. There’s nothing like having a deadline or needing to report to someone to keep you on track. Have your like-minded friends ask you what you’re doing to stay engaged. Make yourself a promise that if you don’t _____________ (fill in the blank with “call my representative,” “read the newspaper,” etc.), you have to donate $10 to Donald Trump’s “Make America Great Again” foundation.


  • Set a reminder on your phone. Have it go off a few times a day with a reminder that says, “Are you engaged?” or “Wake up!”


  • Make a habit of calling or writing your representatives. Make your voice heard! Your senators and congresspersons are actually there to serve you, even though it often seems like it’s the other way around. Check in with them regularly with suggestions, criticisms, and encouragement. Maybe you want to do this every Monday or every other Wednesday. Put it on your calendar and do it.


Engagement is an important part of resiliency

I mentioned above that part of our happiness in life depends on what our natural happiness set point is. As a matter of fact, fully 50% of our happiness depends on our set point, according to happiness researcher Sonya Lyubomirsky.* Only 10% of our happiness comes from stuff—material things.

What about the other 40%?

That big 40% chunk of our happiness is the part that we can actively influence. It’s all about positive actions—doing things that are positive in our lives and in our communities.

That’s why engagement is so helpful to our ability to bounce back. It does two things for us. First, engagement is a series of positive actions that can directly enhance our happiness. Second, it can increase social support and sense of community, two things that research has repeatedly proven essential for resilience.

Only you can know what level of activist engagement you want and need. Maybe my suggestions here are a little too much for you. Or maybe you want to do more. Find the level that works for you.

Finally, remember that engagement also includes being fully engaged with yourself. So be sure to take care of yourself throughout. We need you.


And now it’s over to you. What are your ideas for staying engaged?





*If you’re interested, you can find Lyubomirsky’s paper on the components of happiness here.

Photo credits:

Top – Felipe Cabrera

Middle – nucce

Bottom – DigitPedia

Bouncing back from oblivion: Acting up and speaking out


Oblivious (adj.)

mid-15c., from Latin obliviosus” forgetful, that easily forgets; producing forgetfulness,” from oblivion


Sometimes it takes a hard smack upside the head to get my attention.

My friends, I suspended writing the Bounce blog for a while. Not because I don’t care about you and our discussions about resilience. I’ve been gone because I became oblivious (in the old sense) due to happiness!

I wasn’t unhappy before, but since I last wrote, I met the love of my life, got married, and I’m living happily ever after with her.

Despite my ongoing joy in a loving marriage, my greater world has been shattered by the devastating election of a racist, xenophobic, sexist, lying reality TV star to become the next leader of our beloved country.

So here’s the thing: I am returning to writing about resiliency and how we bounce back in this world. But my posts will be decidedly more about the American political condition than my past helpful but generic writings about resiliency.

I realize that some of you will unsubscribe from Bounce.

And that’s okay.

Ignorance is not bliss—it is oblivion. Philip Wylie

Because I remember again—snapped out of my oblivion—how very important my country is and my fellow Americans are. And I will not stand idle; I will not allow my voice to be silent.

I echo the words my wife wrote in a recent Facebook post after the election: “I will act up, speak out, and accept nothing less than liberty and justice for all.”

As a foundation for Bounce, let me be clear about what I do not accept as a part of liberty and justice for all:

I do not accept: racism

I do not accept: xenophobia

I do not accept: misogyny

changing-the-thingsI do not accept: intolerance

I do not accept: exclusivity

I do not accept: homophobia

I do not accept: violence

I do not accept: any other form of “going low”

In coming posts, we will learn how to be resilient in the midst of a culture that appears to be changing for the worse. We will learn together how to promote inclusiveness, tolerance, forgiveness, non-violent activism, and mutual understanding.

I anticipate that only a small percentage of you will stay with me.

Are you in?




Photo of Ani DiFranco: Susan Alzner

Quote: Angela Davis

4 reasons to friend failure, not fear it


Several top schools in the United Kingdom have been engaging in an interesting experiment: Failure Week.river rock

The entire week is about failure and about “the value of having a go rather than playing it safe and perhaps achieving less.”

I love this. Here’s why: We need to become friends with failure in order to be able to bounce back in life.

Even though there is lip service paid to “it’s okay to fail,” the reality is that there is subtle and not-so-subtle pressure to do exactly the opposite – to be perfect.

But we’re not perfect. We’re human and thus vulnerable to all sorts of flaws and foibles, including failure.

So, we know failure will happen at some point. The question is, can we recover from it? And even more so, can we learn to value it?

Be like the rock in the river

We tend to resist things we don’t like. And failure is one of them. But resisting failure is like the jagged rock trying to resist the rushing river: The water will always pour over the rock, so why does it try so to make it stop? Perhaps, instead, it can allow the river to smooth its sharp edges and turn it into beauty that the rock never expected.

And so, as the rock and the river become friends, knowing that they will always be together, so must we befriend failure.

4 ways to friend failure

1. Friend failure, don’t become it.

I have heard many people say, “I’m such a failure.” No, actually, you are someone who has failed. You, yourself do not equate to failure. Be wary of labeling yourself.

2. Look for the side effects of failure.

Paul Iske, a business innovation researcher and founder of The Institute for Brilliant Failures, likes to give one example to illustrate that failure often has beneficial side effects: Viagra. The drug was created to treat heart conditions. It failed at that, but scientists soon began to note that it had a very noteworthy side effect. The rest, of course, is history

When I was an undergraduate, I failed my statistics class. And then I failed it again. I passed it on the third try (and with a different professor) but my plans to become a mathematician were derailed. I was dejected. I had never failed at anything I set out to achieve.

After awhile, though, I noticed something. Failing my statistics class forced me to look at other fields of study. And I realized that it was actually psychology that energized me, not math. The side effect of my failure was that I allowed myself to really look at what I was passionate about. And although my math classes were interesting and challenging, they did not stir my creative juices as psychology did.

The rest of that story is history, too.

3. Realize that it may not be failure, it may just be deferred success.

I’m sure you’ve heard by now that Thomas Edison tried 3000 times to invent the light bulb until he got it right. If he had quit after his first few tries, you might be reading this by candlelight on parchment paper.

One of Paul Iske’s favorite brilliant failure stories is that of Christopher Columbus. His original mission was to find a faster trading route to the far east. Instead, he failed spectacularly by discovering the North American continent. The success of his failure would not be known until later years.

No matter what is happening for you right now, it could be that you are experiencing success that is deferred until later, one facet of the gem that is failure.

4. Release control of your expectations.

One of the reasons we are so failure-aversive is that it feels as though we lose control when we fail at something. Letting go of your control and expectations about something will allow you to see the softer sides of failure. And, again, letting go does not mean giving up. It merely means to have no judgment about situations or yourself.


We can learn a lot from failure. You never know, it may just end up being one of your best friends.

How do you deal with failure?



Healing rituals for holiday grief

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For many of us, the holidays are a joyful time with family, friends, and other loved ones.broken heart

But if you’ve lost a loved one during the year, this time of year may very well be the opposite of  joyful.

I hope this short article I first posted on my therapy website is helpful for those of you who are struggling this year, I have been trying to make my website better everyday by using the help from the SEO company one of my friends recommended me.

Holidays without your loved one . . .

can be painful and lonely. Especially if it’s the first time the holiday has rolled around after your loss.

Sometimes it’s helpful to create a small ritual to help you remain connected to your loved one while still acknowledging your loss on this special day.

Get your closest friends together, the people you feel the safest with, and create a ritual to remember your loved one during a holiday. Or do the ritual by yourself. Here are a few ideas to get you started:

  • Write a letter to your loved one expressing your feelings during the holiday. Put it in a box and gift-wrap it. Then, put it under the Christmas tree or on a table – wherever you used to place it when your loved one was alive – and keep it as long as you like.  Or try these ideas with your ritual group: bury the box in a special place outside; burn the box and visualize releasing your feelings as the ashes float upward; have one of your friends open the box and read the letter to your ritual group.
  • Ask your ritual group to gather and have each person recall favorite stories about your loved one. You might want to structure it by having them tell stories about their holiday memories of your loved one, how they met your loved one, or what your loved one would say or do that would make them laugh the hardest.

Read more…

10 things to tell yourself when life smacks you down


Sometimes life is just really nasty and smacks us right down to the ground.

It feels awful and can leave us flailing, trying to figure out how to get back up again.

Here are ten things to tell yourself that might help you do just that. Be sure to check out the resources that go along with each idea.


1. I’ve made it through this (or worse) before.

Unfortunately, we can’t permanently escape pain in life. But this can actually be helpful: Remember that this is not the first time you’ve faced heartbreak, grief, emotional distress, or any other kind of calamity.

You made it through then and you will now even if you think this is the worst thing that’s ever happened to you. Read more…

How good are you at bouncing back? Take the quiz!


When faced with a crisis, some of us bounce back just like a fully inflated ball while others of us hit the ground with a thud and stay there, totally deflated.
Bouncing Back

How good are you at bouncing back?

Take this non-scientific quiz to find out!

Let’s hear how you did in the comments section.



[vqzb quiz_id=1]



Infographic – 30 Things to start doing for yourself


I love this infographic.

What’s great about doing these things for yourself is that each and every one of these helps to build your resilience. Put one or more together and your ability to bounce back in life will increase even more quickly.

Print the infographic out and stick it on your fridge, mirror, or somewhere you can see it every day. Then, choose one or two ideas to practice each day.

Let’s talk about which ones are most helpful for you in the comments below!

(You can click on the infographic to see it full-size.)

30 Things to start doing yourself

Feeling stuck? Here’s something to help you see the forest instead of the trees


You may have had this happen to you.Lost In The Woods

You decide to join the Bounce community – and get a great ebook in the process – so you fill out the little form on the right that asks for your first name and email.

Not only do you receive the ebook, Bounce Back! 5 keys to survive and thrive through life’s ups and downs, you inevitably get an email from me asking you to share the biggest struggle you’re facing right now.

I get a variety of responses:

  • Health problems
  • Financial pressures
  • Worry about children and family
  • Indecision about career issues
  • Struggles with mental and emotional health
  • Relationship problems
  • Lack of self-worth, self-confidence, self-compassion
  • Caring for aging parents
  • Dealing with past abuse
  • Grieving the loss of a loved one

I answer all my email and always try to help in whatever small way I can.

Since there are zillions of different struggles that we all face, there are lots of suggestions that I make.

But I find myself asking the writer one question again and again: Read more…

Bobbi Emel is a therapist who helps people in Los Altos, Palo Alto, Mountain View and the greater Bay Area manage their stress and develop their strengths.
She is effective in helping people dealing with anxiety, worry and grief; and also those who want to improve their effectiveness and performance.