How do we become emotionally intelligent and develop inner strength? Channel 10's mind & body expert and clinical psychologist, Leanne Hall, explains why accepting discomfort improves your emotional health.
No one likes to feel uncomfortable, let alone upset or distressed. In fact, it’s something that we may even find ourselves going to great lengths to avoid. And why not right? Sometimes this avoidance of discomfort can even take priority over our desire to seek out pleasure.
What this leads to is a life of careful planning and apprehension of “playing it safe” and sitting quite comfortably in that familiar comfort zone.
To many people this may sound like the best way to anxiety proof their life. And in the short term it achieves this purpose. But guess what? Anxiety is normal, and as hard as we may try, we cannot get rid of it completely. It’s innate, and it’s here to stay.
The same can be said for other uncomfortable emotional experiences such as grief, anger and even jealousy. The range of human emotion is as far as it is wide, and yet society continues to suggest to us that negative emotions are “bad”, and instead we should be striving for eternal and everlasting happiness. Wow, wouldn’t that be awesome? Or would it?
Let’s think about this for a minute. Imagine a world where everything we experience is positive, and every emotional experience is pleasant. While this utopian world would be fun to hang out in for a while, to stay there would mean splintering off and disowning a very important part of what makes us human, and more importantly, the very thing that makes us learn and grow.
Because whenever life throws a curve ball at us, or we experience a negative or unpleasant event, it provides us with a unique opportunity for growth. How many times have you moved through a situation that at the time felt terrible, only to come out the other end with greater inner strength, resolve and maybe even a little more emotional resilience? Adversity changes us, and often it succeeds at making us more human, more empathetic, more emotionally intelligent and more resilient. But only if we let it in.
Denial and Avoidance
Denying or suppressing our emotional experiences does not make them go away. Nor can you “convert” an unpleasant emotion into a pleasant one. It’s like telling someone with depression to “cheer up”, or someone simmering with rage to “calm down”. The only way we can move through any emotional experience is to look at, understand it, and sit with it. Only then can we make an informed decision about how to respond in a given situation.
The same can be said for physical discomfort. Avoidance of physical discomfort can be one the main reasons we don’t stick to an exercise program. It’s hard, and it hurts. And sometimes avoiding pain discomfort is more important than achieving a particular goal. Even if we know that achieving that goal would feel awesome!
But here’s the problem. Discomfort is a transient experience. It goes away. As such, making a decision based on something that is going to change is like refusing to take warm clothing to Antarctica because in Sydney right now you feel hot! Feelings and emotions pass. Be informed by them, but don’t let them determine your decisions. Why? Because emotionally motivated decisions and actions can in fact end up taking you further away from your goals and your values!
By acknowledging discomfort and seeing it as an opportunity for growth we can move through it, instead of going around it. Not only is this more likely to take us in the direction of our goals, it also teaches us amazing things about what our mind and body can achieve along the way. It provides us with an opportunity to get to know ourselves better both physically and psychologically. And when we know ourselves better, our lives become richer. We are better at setting healthy boundaries, better at understanding our limits, and better at supporting others. Read more thoughts for better living here.
So how can you learn to let these emotions in without resorting to the default position of avoidance?
Acceptance as a skill
Acceptance is a skill. It takes patience and practice. You win some and you lose some, and the first important step is to be ok with that. Accept that each and everyone is flawed, we make mistakes. As for the discomfort that goes with these mistakes? Let it in, don’t avoid it or try and distract yourself so you don’t feel it.
Often we avoid our emotions because we are afraid of them. Afraid of what we will find, afraid of being swallowed by them, or of not being able to “control” them. However our emotions cannot be controlled, but our behaviour can. By avoiding uncomfortable emotions we get stuck in them, and when this happens we actually have less control over our behaviour.
Self Reflection & Meditation
It’s a cliché and one we hear so often. But meditation completely works to improve your emotional health. 5-10 minutes a day is all you need. However, if the idea of sitting with your legs crossed, elbows on knees, hands poised chanting “OM” isn’t your style, then call it self-reflection! The goal of any meditative experience is to connect with your subconscious.
Start by letting your mind wander (because that’s what our minds are designed to do!) consciously reflect on your day, or the day ahead, and begin to pay attention to how your thoughts are making you feel, and then slowly bring your attention towards the present. Hanging in the “here and now” facilitates a connection with your inner most emotional experiences. It’s a way of unplugging from the stress associated with daily life.
When you disconnect from all of the “noise” of your life, your focus shifts to YOU. This can shift our perspective and make things look a little different. It’s like ditching the band and background vocals and going acapella. All of a sudden the meaning of the song changes and you hear the “voice” for the very first time. However you choose to reflect or meditate, the goal is about reconnection.
A final word…
It’s important to stress however, that for some people meditation and self-reflection can be extremely confronting. For example, anyone who has experienced trauma, abuse or anyone with a mental health issue. For these people, meditation should always be supported and guided and exist within the context of a relationship with a qualified health professional.
Avoidance leads to stagnation, Acceptance leads to growth.
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