As a therapist, I often get asked what I do with difficult emotions, that is, how I handle life’s rough spots. Although I believe that all emotionally healthy people have a range of techniques for dealing with intense feelings, I know we all have certain skills we rely on. Recently I’ve set up a 48-hour rule about a certain kind of emotion visiting me, and have found it very useful.
Not long ago, I had a bunch of bummer things happen to me: being hurt by a friend, problems with a few clients, and a rejection regarding a new writing project. In each instance, I felt some combination of crummy—dejected, angry, helpless, frustrated, misunderstood, devalued, or invalidated. So I followed the 90-second rule (see my 8/21/09 blog), allowing my feelings to flow, no matter how uncomfortable they made me, neither rejecting nor inviting the hurt, but letting it come and go at will.
During the first 24 hours, I followed the 90-second rule and experienced the ebb and flow of painful emotion. I also talked with friends to vent and to get other perspectives on the situation. By sharing, I added a cognitive layer to the initial emotion: deciding whether I wanted to hold onto my feelings about what happened (and maybe take action on them) or be done with them. Basically, people I talked to listened attentively, validated my feelings, then gently encouraged an attitude adjustment.
The next morning I decided that I’d had enough of the emotion and set a goal to let it go. So for the second 24 hours, every time the thought of what happened crept or burst into my consciousness, I pushed it away. I used self-talk, redirection, putting feelings into context, self-soothing, laughing at myself, whatever worked. Sometimes I repeated, “I’m not going there” or “Out, out, out, damned thought.” Other times I picked up a book or otherwise engaged myself. I reminded myself that, at this point, by obsessing about what hurt me, I was reinforcing neural pathways that I didn’t want to deepen and that by shifting my focus, I was allowing these neural pathways to die out which is exactly what I wanted. My efforts were ongoing for much of this second 24-hour period.
In each instance, by the third day, I really did feel better. Maybe the emotion would have faded on its own, but I doubt it. I suspect that if I had dwelt on it and stoked my fires of grievance (which we’re all so very good at!), the feeling would have gained strength and power over me. Try the 48-hour rule. See if it helps you to engage with and let go of difficult emotions and keeps you away from unwanted eating.