Do you remember the Pixar film, Inside Out? Released to much acclaim in 2015, much of the film takes place in the head of an 11-year-old girl named Riley, with five emotions—Joy, Sadness, Anger, Fear, and Disgust—embodied by characters who help Riley navigate her world. I watched it again recently and realised that the film has some deep things to say about the nature of our emotions.
I like to personify emotions and think of them as characters. Some are our “friends” on Facebook, some are top of our instagram feed. And others are blocked, “unfriended” and muted because we just don’t want to see them.
What I have come to realise is that it is in our best interest to follow and friend them all because they are not going away and, actually, they could be the very friends we learn the most from.
Not “fair weather friends” but ones that help us get through really tough times to the other side.
I believe every emotion has a reason and a purpose for being there. It might be to help us learn something, to ask for support, to take a different path, to change something or help us connect with and learn to love ourselves more.
In fact, a recent study found that people who experience “emodiversity,” or a rich array of both positive and negative emotions, have better mental health. The authors of this study suggest that feeling a variety of specific emotions may give a person more detailed information about a particular situation, thus resulting in better behavioral choices—and potentially greater happiness.
Every time we can stop, listen, feel, reflect and process that emotion, and come out the other side of it, we have an opportunity to learn from the story.
There is no such thing as “good” or “bad” emotions and no such thing as “positive” or “negative” feelings.
Don’t get me wrong, there are feelings that are challenging, difficult and painful. But to avoid these only prolongs the challenge, heightens the difficulty and increases the pain.
I can guarantee you that every one of us has experienced similar emotions.
Maybe at different times, to different extents and with different reactions to them. But we have all experienced them. Fear, sadness, anxiety, anger, confusion, hopelessness, frustration, disappointment, despair to name a few.
So, how do we cope with a tough emotions and tough days
Accept it is a tough day. It is tempting to push away this fact, criticise yourself for not feeling better or try to continue doing what you had set out to do. Resistance to feelings, turning in on yourself is just adding another layer to how you already feel. Taking a breath and accepting how you feel actually makes the day easier to handle.
There may be a reason you feel that way, there may not – either way it is ok. If you can identify a reason then what can you do about that? Is it a specific situation, is there something you can change within it? If it is an emotional pattern or trigger, take a breath and respond rather than react. Get specific. When we identify what exactly is triggering our anxiety it can help us rationalise and understand it.
Feel the feeling, listen to it. Feelings, when they are strong and challenging, are hard to feel because we want them to go away. But try to listen to it. What is that feeling trying to tell you? What is its purpose? Is it telling you to reach out for support? Is it telling you to connect with others more? Is it telling you to express yourself by crying, talking or writing? If you really listen to it, it will guide you.
Breaking down our response to challenging feelings into moment-to-moment choices is where our power lies. Listening to a piece of calming music if you are feeling anxious, taking a walk to get some space from worries, running if you feel angry or frustrated, taking a nap if we are overwhelmed. These are all things we can try to choose to do in those moments, not to force a “better” feeling, but to help process how we feel.
Tomorrow is another day. Remember emotions are usually fleeting and they come and go. If they are persistent or overwhelming make sure you are reaching out for support. But, mostly, they pass. They pass more quickly if we help them along the way and listen to them. With a new day comes new energy to work with our feelings, not against them. The more challenging feelings may not be the “villains”after all. They may actually be the hero of the story and our saving grace in feeling better and learning about who we really are.