We human beings struggle with many things. Life brings us problems, conflicts and complex situations. However, as a therapist, I often see that one of the most difficult things for many people to cope with in their lives is their own emotions.
There is not a person alive who hasn’t felt severe emotional pain at one point or another. So the question is - what are we to do when we feel terrible?
Here are some important guidelines to keep in mind:
• Emotional pain is not permanent. It always passes.
• Escaping or avoiding emotional pain only causes it to subside temporarily, if at all. Then it will come back, often more intensely.
• Emotions pass better and more permanently when they are tolerated and dealt with than when they are simply escaped from.
• Sitting with an unpleasant feeling, trying to put it into words, and thinking about the cause of it are all ways to tolerate and work through it.
Let’s take a look at how coping might be via the Escape It Method vs. the Tolerate It Method.
Soon, it will be Thanksgiving. Lizzie, a 26-year-old graduate student, lacked the funds to fly home to spend it with her family. She was disappointed when her parents did not offer to pay for her plane ticket. But not surprised, as they often let her down. However, Lizzie was delighted to learn that Grace, her best friend at college, would be spending Thanksgiving there as well. They made plans to spend Thanksgiving Day together. Then, at the last minute, Grace decided to go home to her family after all.
Lizzie was not only surprised; she also felt hurt. Grace didn’t invite Lizzie to go with her, and she wasn’t even very apologetic about how her change in plans affected Lizzie. Lizzie knows that she will be all alone, feeling uncared for and unloved on this major holiday.
On Thanksgiving Day, Lizzie sleeps as late as she can (sleep can be a way to avoid uncomfortable feelings). She finally gets up around noon, feeling terrible: alone, unloved, uncared for, and on some level, rejected by both her family and Grace.
Lizzie immediately goes on her favorite shopping website. She spends several hours looking at sweaters, skirts, tops and shoes. She puts a total of 15 items in her cart. Impulsively and without thinking, she presses the PAY NOW button. She sits for a few minutes and basks in the warm glow of the new clothes that she is imagining arriving over the next week.
Suddenly, she realizes that she is still alone on Thanksgiving Day. Those bad feelings flow back in. Lizzie starts trying to think of her next escape mode to carry her through the rest of the day. She realizes that it’s after 4:00. “That’s late enough to open up a bottle of wine,” she thinks. So she does.
That night, Lizzie goes to bed feeling anesthetized by alcohol. But right before she falls asleep, she feels a deep regret for all of the money she charged on her credit card to purchase the clothes. She can tell that she will have a hangover tomorrow. And an uncomfortable realization hangs in the back of her mind, “I won’t feel any better tomorrow than I did today.”
The night before Thanksgiving, Lizzie sits alone in her apartment. She thinks about what tomorrow will be like. She thinks to herself, “It’s going to suck. I am going to feel lonely and sad. How am I going to get through the day?”
She sits down with a piece of paper, and starts writing down things that she can do to cope. Lizzie writes the following items:
• Go for a run
• Call my sister and talk to her on the phone
• Bake a loaf of bread
• Write in my journal
On Thanksgiving Day, Lizzie gets up feeling lonely, hurt, rejected and sad. But she drags herself out of bed at 9 a.m. She reminds herself that this was expected. “Anyone in my shoes would feel this way,” she reminds herself. “Just because I feel it, that doesn’t make it true.” This helps her feel a bit better, and she has a bowl of cereal and goes for a long run.
While she’s running, Lizzie thinks about why her parents didn’t buy her a ticket home. She remembers her mother talking about money problems, and realizes that this could be part of the reason. This, again, helps her feel better.
Lizzie goes through the rest of her day going back and forth between bad feelings, thinking them through, reminding herself that they’re just feelings, and engaging in the activities on her list.
That night she goes to bed tired, a bit sad, but also feeling proud of herself for having made it through the day. Tomorrow her roommate will return, and things will feel back on-track.
Yes, escape can be easier and more immediately gratifying. But it allows no opportunity to confront, work through, and think through your feelings. And, unfortunately, escaped feelings don’t really go away. They simply lurk below the surface awaiting an opportunity to rise again. And they will.