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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)


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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.