Happiness. Anxiety. Delight. Frustration. Serenity. Impatience. In other words, emotions.
We all have them. And so far nobody has figured out a way to remove the uncomfortable feelings without also erasing exuberance and the other pleasurable emotions. So, our options are either to accept occasional emotional pain or relinquish feeling much of anything at all.
Feelings have important functions. Among other things, they signify that we care, that we are affected by what goes on around us, and that we aren’t inanimate robots or statues. Feelings also communicate to us and those around us what we want and need.
Our responses to our feelings can run the gamut, with one extreme being denial of our emotions and the other extreme being utter immersion and identification with our emotions. The healthy middle ground consists of our bearing witness to our feelings, without judgment, with warm regard, and the recognition that however painful, our feelings won’t last forever.
Admittedly, this can be quite a balancing act. Some days will be easier than others. For instance, if we’ve gone too long between meals, are sleep-deprived, fighting a cold, lonely, facing a work deadline, or experiencing conflict in an important relationship it may be harder to tolerate our feelings – but it’s possible.
When we see a child in distress, most of us have the urge to provide comfort. Maybe we hug the child, pick them up, or stroke their hair, giving physical reassurance. We might also soothe them with our words, showing the child that we recognize and understand that they’re upset.
So, when did we become too old to need compassion? The answer is that we never did and never will.
Then why do we often have trouble relating as kindly to ourselves when we’re confronting a difficult time?
Generally as children we learned how to relate to ourselves from our parents and other caretakers. If such adults consistently comforted us and validated our feelings, we’re likely to internalize such voices and take the same supportive attitude toward ourselves.
However, if our caretakers were impatient, told us our feelings were wrong or stupid, ignored us, were absent, or were unpredictable in their responses to us, we may have adopted similar approaches when left to our own devices.
The challenge is how to soothe ourselves when nobody else is available. While just about everybody would benefit from a strong social support system, and often family, friends, and therapists can provide comfort and perspective, it’s not always possible to turn to someone else for comfort. There are times when we have to walk through the fire on our own. With practice, we can learn effective ways to comfort ourselves.
1. Ask yourself, “What would someone who loves and respects herself or himself do at this moment?” This question can remind you to treat yourself as you would a cherished friend. It also provides just enough distance from your feelings, so you can bear witness to your experience while not becoming overwhelmed.
2. View your present experience like a detective or reporter. Become curious rather resisting what’s going on. Stick with the facts. Write them down. Look at:
- Where do you feel your emotional pain in your body? Do you have a headache? Backache? Sore muscles? Nausea? Dizziness? A rapid heart rate?
- What are you telling yourself? What’s your mental dialogue like? What words are you using about yourself, your past, the present moment, your feelings, or the future? Are you being mean, critical, or predicting disaster?
- What sort of actions do you want to take? Whether or not you’re actually acting on your impulses, what is your knee-jerk impulse? To run away? Hide? Act aggressively? Cry? Yell? Brood? Withdraw? (Again, no judgment here. Have you ever had a pet hide their face under your arm when you brought them to the vet? They’re seeking safety – as are you, probably.)
3. Give yourself a hug. This gesture is less awkward when in public than it might seem – it will probably just appear to others that you’re feeling a chill. Whatever the case, what really matters is that you’re providing yourself with an infusion of the hormone oxytocin, the “bonding” hormone, which increases trust and empathy and counters anxiety. Putting your hand on your heart or stroking your arm also stimulates the release of oxytocin.
4. Tell yourself, “I am here for me.” Modern society has taught us to escape our feelings or try to manipulate them through numerous means, such as fantasizing, over-working, preoccupation with people-pleasing, or addictive behaviors. For instance, it’s no mistake that alcoholism has been termed “the disease of living elsewhere”. When the present moment seems intolerable and there’s no one by your side to offer reassurance, you are left to your own devices. Reaffirming that you have your own back is a life-affirming alternative to the needless suffering of self-abandonment.
5. Ask yourself, “What are my feelings trying to teach me?” The symptom is often a signal, rather than something we need to fight off or reason our way out of. Do you need more social connection? Are you in a job that’s a poor fit for your skills, experience, and interests? Are you literally bored to tears? Are you keeping something to yourself that should be discussed with someone else? Are you in a destructive relationship? Taking the batteries out of the fire alarm will not put out the fire. Addressing the cause of the flames and taking action to confront the issue are the answers.
6. Contemplate, “What’s one constructive, kind thing I can do right now?” The answer may be as simple as taking a nap. Or it may be to pick up the phone and connect with a friend. Never underestimate the power of a thoughtful gesture. Sometimes we magnify our problems by ruminating about them, when turning our thoughts to someone else may be a powerful antidote that helps not only the other person but ourselves as well. The paradox is that although we all have our individual races to run, we are also all in this together and can lighten one another’s loads.
Embrace the idea that you can tolerate the anxiety, grief, fear, disappointment, or frustration of the present moment. Appreciate yourself for your courage and willingness to stay with what is, without making matters worse, and know that in doing so you’re developing your inner strength.