Emotionally Managing Hard Times

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With all the bad economic news most of us have been feeling incredibly stressed out lately. Even if you still have your job, it is likely that your savings have taken a big hit. Our retirement plans have been run through the shredder and for many of us our job security is now hanging by a thread.  Despite the drop in gas prices we feel strapped and hesitate to spend money for fear that the future might be even worse than the last few months.

When I listen to people talk about the present dire financial circumstances it seems that most of us are feeling afraid, helpless and even hopeless These feelings can be devastating and wreak havoc on our mental, emotional and even physical wellbeing. We imagine that the future will be really bad if not disastrous, and we don’t know what to do about it. With all that’s happening it’s hard if not impossible to keep our spirits up.

No one can argue that the economy is good right now. And we may not be able to do anything individually to make a difference. It seems that more than likely we have to wait it out to find out what happens while making some tough decisions about our personal circumstance.  But even though there might be little we can do to affect the bigger economic picture or even our personal finances, there are distinctive choices we can make about how we respond to these circumstances.

By taking charge of our emotions and our thinking, while best utilizing the most important resource we have in our lives, our relationships, we can guarantee that we will make the best of a bad circumstance. But in order to do this effectively we need to understand a few things about our emotions and thinking.

It’s perfectly understandable and reasonable when bad things, like temporarily losing 40 or 50 percent of your retirement, to feel pretty bad if not awful. We can feel angry, upset, frustrated, victimized, worried, anxious, helpless, hopeless and confused. The question is what to do with these feelings and what to do with the thoughts that come with them. The answer requires a new understanding of how our emotions work.

Traditionally, we’ve dealt with our emotions by questioning their validity. We’ve operated as if some emotions were valid and some were not, with valid emotions being those we had good enough reasons to feel. If I felt angry, I needed a good enough reason to justify my anger. If I felt sad, something sufficiently tragic must have happened to justify my sadness. Those emotions we could justify were okay to feel, but those we could not justify were not. We could feel what we felt only when we had good enough reasons.

I can remember childhood experiences of crying because my feelings were hurt and well-meaning adults trying to make me feel better by telling me there was nothing for me to cry about. Being a quick learner, I began to question the validity of my feelings, and years later I heard myself saying the same thing to my young daughter. She was crying about not getting a Barbie that she had wanted at the store, a disappointment that seemed small and insignificant to me, when I heard myself telling her, “that’s nothing to be upset about.” Fortunately, my wife saved me from passing on this tradition to my daughter by pointing out that if there were nothing to be upset about, she wouldn’t be upset!

Questioning their validity makes emotions subordinate to our thinking, the realm of reason and rationale. Consequently, whenever we feel emotions we try to justify them by finding good reasons to validate what we feel, thus experiencing our emotions as either right or wrong. As a boy I needed a good enough reason, something important, to justify my crying. When I could find justifiable reasons to feel upset, I was “right” to feel hurt. Without enoough justifiable reasons, I was “wrong” to feel upset.

When we must justify our feelings, we learn to respond to our emotions by either repressing them or becoming righteous about them. When we can’t sufficiently justify an emotion we repress it. Feeling emotions that we can’t justify creates a conflict between what we feel and what we’re allowed to feel. In the example above, if my daughter had listened to me, she would have experienced conflict between feeling upset about not getting the “Barbie” doll and feeling “wrong” to feel upset. Our natural response to this type of conflict is to repress the original upset feelings, seemingly resolving the conflict.

On the other hand, when we can justify our emotions with good enough reasons, we become righteous about what we feel. We are literally “right” to feel what we feel. If I forget our anniversary, my wife is “right” to feel hurt and angry with me. When my father died I was “right” to feel sad. When our feelings are either “right” or “wrong,” the only emotions we allow ourselves to feel are “righteous” ones.

Even though repressing emotions is very different from feeling righteous about them, both these responses keep us stuck in our feelings. Repressing a feeling doesn’t get rid of it because, when we repress a feeling, we merely become unconscious to what we’re feeling. Repressed feelings don’t change; they just become more deeply buried under more repression as the years go by, and no matter how deeply we bury them, they still affect us.

When we can find sufficient reasons for our feelings, we also get stuck in them. When we use reasons to validate our feelings, any possibility of moving past our feelings requires admitting that our reasons were invalid in the first place, that our feelings were “wrong.”  However, since like most people we would rather be right than happy, we’re reluctant to admit that we were wrong, and so we cling to our righteous feelings.

Obviously, in the present economic environment and, for most of us, with our present financial situation we have lots of reason to feel bad. Whether we feel upset, angry, scared or frustrated we can easily justify our feelings. But if we stay righteous about these feelings we get stuck in them, which means we’re doomed to feeling bad as long as the circumstances, which are almost completely out of our control, don’t change for the better. But I don’t want to wait for the stock market to rally 4000 points before I feel better. In order to not be an emotional victim of these bad circumstances we need a new, more freeing understanding of our emotions.

In order to no longer be a victim of circumstance and our righteous emotion we need to understand that all our emotions are valid merely because we feel them. We don’t need to justify our feelings with reasons because they are always already valid. When all our feelings are valid we remove emotions from the realm of “right” or “wrong.”  We no longer need to justify what we feel. Therefore, we never need to repress our “wrong” feelings because there’s no such thing as a “wrong” feeling. We are never righteous about our feelings because feelings are neither “right” nor “wrong.” We just feel what we feel.

But in order to make the best use of regarding all emotions as valid we need one important distinction. This is that all feelings are valid, but all expressions of emotions are not. That we feel angry at the financial institutions and government for the bad decisions that created the present economic crisis is valid because we feel it. If and how we express this feeling is another decision. This distinction empowers us by giving us the freedom to choose how to express our emotions. We might complain to our friends, write an editorial or keep it to ourselves. I want to suggest that we resolve our emotions by using the most powerful resource for change that we have in our lives, the people we love and who love us.

When we are experiencing strong feelings that we can’t seem to shake we can either choose to communicate our feelings to others, or we can act out our emotions. When we aren’t honest and straight with each other about what we feel, not sharing what’s really going on for us, our relationships become dumping grounds. When we don’t talk about what’s bothering us, we displace our feelings by overreacting and being miserable. We use our relationships to dump our bad feelings, making our loved ones the victims of our circumstances. Feeling bad about our finances we can be impatient, short irritable and displace our feelings by overreacting to other less important problems.

On the other hand, when we share our feelings, with those we love and who care about us, our relationships become oases where we can be nourished and replenished. Sharing our feelings with our loved ones helps them support us by letting us know that our feelings are okay and that they value us. By expressing our feelings in this healthy way, our relationships become a place where we can safely and comfortably express ourselves. Our relationships have truly become oases where we can find respite and emotional nourishment. We have a place where we know that there are others who love and support us just the way we are, whether the markets are up or down.

Just as important as learning to express and validate our emotions in a healthy way is to do this without indulging our emotions. Validating our emotions without indulging them means accepting and acknowledging our feelings without believing the story that goes along with them.

Bad feelings often have a story that comes along with them. When my savings decrease I’m likely to feel upset about that fact, but I usually don’t stop there. I often take this fact and attach two kinds of story to it that make things a whole lot worse. This is what I call indulging our feelings.

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