When life deals you Lemons…
Positive Psychology has sometimes been described as what takes us from OK to great – but what happens when something knocks us sideways and we are finding it hard to cope?
There are times when things just aren’t going right for us and no amount of positivity can fix it, so what do we do then? I’m normally a fan of gratitude journaling to keep focussed on the bright side of life, but in the last couple of months there have been a couple of issues over which I have no control that have made it hard to feel positive or hopeful. So this month I thought I would try to summarise what I’ve learnt from Positive Psychology that has helped me through.
Acknowledge your emotions, but don’t get swept away
If you are feeling angry, or frustrated or upset or sad, that’s OK. Don’t be hard on yourself or feel that you shouldn’t ‘feel’ that way, just accept those emotions as part of your human experience. But at the same time, don’t get swept up in your emotions or take action when they are in full flow. This is easier said than done, and takes practice, but if you can allow yourself to time to feel and process an emotion, without reacting to it and leaping into action straightaway, the feelings will calm down eventually and then you can move forward. One way I found helped me was to rephrase the way I spoke to myself. Instead of saying “I am angry” (or sad, or whatever) I rephrase it as “I feel angry” – this adds a distance between me and the feeling, allowing me to acknowledge it without being caught up in it.
One analogy I’ve found useful is to think of your mind as the sky. The weather comes and goes, sometimes it’s sunny and sometimes it’s stormy. But you are the sky and not the weather, just watch the weather pass through and know that the rain will end.
Easier said than done – how do I do this?
One approach to try may be to use the R.A.I.N. technique, an approach that allows you to work through four steps to process your emotions. This approach comes from the Buddhist tradition of mindfulness and has been further developed by Tara Brach, a clinical psychologist and Buddhist teacher.
R – Recognise how you are feeling. Can you put a label on your emotion?
A – Acknowledge/Accept things are as they are right now. We might not like what is happening or what we are feeling, but accept your feelings as they are, don’t try to push them away or be angry with yourself for feeling that way.
I – Investigate. With a gentle compassion to yourself, explore your feelings. Why do I feel like this? What is this emotion trying to tell me? What can I learn from this?
N – Non-identification/Nurture. Understand that this emotion is transient, and not who you are. Then treat yourself with kindness as you would a friend.
Write it down
Another way to help work through what’s going on is to write it down. I find this particularly helpful if things are going round in my head in the middle of the night – if I can’t get back to sleep, I bale out to the spare room, grab a pen and paper put on a side light and just write down what I’m thinking and feeling. When we write things down, we have to process our thoughts and this stops us mentally chasing our tails and allows us to make sense of what’s going on in our heads.
The scientist James Pennebaker has done a lot of research into the benefits of writing and has developed a technique called expressive writing, where you sit and write about an issue for at least 15 minutes, three or four days in a row. The idea is to write continuously – don’t worry about spelling or grammar – you can write longhand or type, or even talk into a voice recorder. You don’t need to do anything with your writing afterwards (keep it, burn it, rip it into shreds…), the benefit is in the act of writing.
Research has shown that although writing about an issue or traumatic event may be upsetting in the short term, it often results in physical and mental health benefits. Pennebaker theorises that there may be a number of reasons why this might be helpful. In the process of writing, we ascribe words to our emotions and thoughts, which allow us to make sense of them and allow us to understand and find meaning in our experience, maybe even fashioning it into a ‘story’ that we can tell ourselves. Processing experiences in this way then allows us to stop ruminating over them (and in my case, put down my pen and paper, and go back to sleep.) One important point to note is that this technique works well on people who are generally mentally healthy – it may not be appropriate for someone who is severely depressed or has another mental illness, so this particular technique of expressive writing should be used with care.
Talk it out
If it’s not the middle of the night, then another option is to talk it out with a trusted friend. Someone who can validate your feelings and make you feel supported without going into ‘problem solving’ mode and trying to tell you what to do. Sometimes the people closest to us will find it hard not to get too drawn in and to try to problem solve which can be counterproductive – it’s frustrating if you are trying to express how you feel and end up trying to justify why you shouldn’t do x y or z, because you’ve tried it, or have reasons why you don’t think that would work. Another problem is when our nearest and dearest don’t want to hear that we are struggling because it’s painful for them so brush us off with ‘it will be OK’ or ‘look on the bright side’ when we’re not ready to do that just yet. So pick the right person to talk to – if your family are good at listening that’s great, talk to them, but you might have a friend who is a better sounding board or know someone who’s been through something similar who might understand. Often, it’s not just one person we talk to, sometimes talking things through with different people provides different insights or helps in different ways. I have one friend with a black sense of humour who helps me – whatever we are going through, whenever we are together, we start to find humour even in the darkest of moments, which somehow helps us to keep our perspective.
Another option is to use a counsellor or helpline that specialises in dealing with what you are going through. It can be really hard to pick up the phone and speak to someone for the first time, (I know – I’ve done this – I managed to get two sentences out before bursting into tears) but this can be really helpful – the person you are speaking to knows how to listen and will help you put things into perspective and deal with your situation. And if one particular avenue isn’t helpful, don’t write everyone off, there may be another counsellor or approach that would work better for you.
Eventually you can make Lemonade…
Once I’ve made progress with dealing with my negative emotions, I then find I can dust of my gratitude journal and start focussing on the positive again. Or even if I don’t write it down, I can notice the positives. The small improvements in the situation that’s worrying me. How lucky I am to have friends and family that support me. Eventually, you can find meaning in any situation however bad – if you can get through it (and you will!), you will be stronger and wiser, and more understanding of other people going through similar struggles. It might feel like a cliché to say ‘What doesn’t kill me makes me stronger’, but there is truth in the fact that when we face and work our way through difficulties, it’s often then that we grow the most.
Read more about Sarah Cramoysan and her other articles HERE
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