5 Strategies for Working Through Difficult Emotions

Don’t worry. Be happy.

It sounds catchy, but it’s not great advice.

When you’re in the midst of a difficult time, being told “chin up,” “look at the bright side” or “it could be worse” can just make you feel, well, worse.

Enter “toxic positivity.”

I’ve seen a lot of it in recent times. I’m guessing you have, too.

At the heart of toxic positivity is a form of unintentional gaslighting—the excessive and overgeneralization of a “be happy, think positive” state across all situations. It’s toxic because, like anything done in excess, when positivity is used to repress, downplay or invalidate negative emotions, it denies the full human experience.

The truth is, sometimes life sucks. Like it has in recent months amid this pandemic that has brought enormous hardships and heartaches into the homes and hearts of billions.

Can good come from bad times? You bet. But that doesn’t negate the very difficult and raw emotions that naturally arise as we go through life.

My son Ben graduates high school next week. He hasn’t been allowed to see his friends since March. It makes me feel sad that he’s missing out on a celebratory time that should have been filled with revelry. I also felt disappointed when my book tour for my new book was canceled in April. No irony was lost on me that on the day of its release, I was quarantined, and my husband hospitalized with COVID-19. “Don’t worry, be happy” was just not gonna cut it that day. 

I am guessing that you’ve had your own share of setbacks and struggles in recent times. Perhaps you’re in the midst of a few right now. I get it.  

If that’s the case, I encourage you to reframe how you view positivity. Not because having a positive mental outlook isn’t vital to thriving amid life’s inevitable ups and downs. It is. And I’m all for it. But because when we try to hand pick which emotions we will feel and cut ourselves off from the not-so-pleasant ones, we actually cut ourselves off from those which bring us the deepest joy. The avoidance of suffering is a form of suffering.

Here are five strategies to avoid the pitfalls of toxic positivity and work through those bad feelings in a way that serves you:

1. Feel your feelings, all the way through.

We aren’t wired to feel pain; we’re wired to avoid it. Yet it’s by embracing our painful emotions that we gain access to our deepest source of strength. You can do that by leaning into, versus running from (minimizing, invalidating, denying, distracting, downplaying) the uncomfortable emotions you’re feeling.

Next time you feel an emotion that doesn’t feel so good, take yourself somewhere quiet, label whatever emotions you’re feeling—sad, anxious, jealous, guilty, hurt, disappointed—and identify where those emotions are sitting in your body (they always plant themselves somewhere!). Place your hand there and take a few minutes to breathe deeply into wherever you feel that constriction. As you do, ask yourself, what issue needs your attention?

Studies have found that by feeling our feelings all the way through it helps to loosen their grip. On the flip side, when we deny uncomfortable emotions, we make them bigger. Only by fully feeling our more negative emotions can we truly savor the positive ones. You can’t have one without the other.

2. Share the uncurated truth of your life with the deserving few.

How are you, really?

“I’m great” is the default response. It’s what people want to hear. It’s what we want to be true. And sometimes it is.

Yet when we mask the less picture-perfect truth of our lives and curate a fake emotional world, we cut ourselves off from the very people who could help us carry our burdens better. In that place we run the risk of building superficial friendships with counterfeit intimacy.  

This does not imply that you should go around telling anybody and everybody about all your problems or how bad you feel. Not everyone deserves your truth. Rather, it means sharing with those who have earned the right to know what is weighing you down.

When my husband was hospitalized for COVID-19, I felt anxious and overwhelmed. Just because I wrote a book about countering doubt and being brave didn’t make me immune to fear in that moment. In fact, during his first few days battling fever, my fears ran amok. So I reached out to close friends and family. The tears flowed. I view myself as a fairly resilient person, but I know my emotional bandwidth is even greater when I’ve let others in to cheer me on.

The same is true for you. Sharing your struggles doesn’t remove them, but it broadens your shoulders to carry them better. The saying that “a burden shared is a burden halved” holds enormous truth.  

How are you, really? It’s OK to say you’re not OK. And of course, if you’re still really struggling, have the courage to seek professional help. Reaching out to those who can help you is not a sign of weakness. It shows you want to be stronger.

3. Stop beating yourself up for not feeling upbeat.

If you like to see yourself as a positive person, then it can be confronting to your sense of identity when you feel anything but positive. But beating yourself up for not feeling upbeat just pulls you further down.

Even the most optimistic people can feel negative at times. Even the most loving can feel anything but. Get off your own back and embrace your humanity with the compassion you’d extend to your best friend. Fear, anger, sadness… good can come out of them all. But not if you’re fighting or fleeing them.

Rather than trying to eliminate negativity, we must work to increase positivity. And we cannot cultivate more positive emotions if we’re punishing ourselves each time we feel negative ones.

4. Validate others’ hard emotions.

After miscarrying midway through my first pregnancy, many people offered words to help me feel better. Sometimes they did just the opposite.

“I guess this baby just wasn’t meant to be,” a work colleague said.  Nope, clearly not. But I had already imagined their first day at school. “At least you’re still young,” said another. Yep, I was. But in the midst of my grief their words gave little consolation.

As I’ve learned from my own experiences of loss, the only way out of grief is to sit with our sadness and honor it fully. And when others experience it, to acknowledge whatever difficult new reality they are grappling with.

One of the most fundamental human needs is to be heard and understood. This requires us to rise above our instinctive response to alleviate their pain or fix their problem. Some problems cannot be fixed, anyway.

First and foremost, what people really need is not saccharine “look on the bright side” platitudes that invalidate their experience, but to be heard, acknowledged and understood—wherever they are, however they’re feeling (even if you think they are overreacting!). Here are three ways to do that:  

  • Validate what they’re feeling by mirroring their feelings: This sucks. I’m so sorry, this is hard stuff. I see how stressful this is for you. It’s totally understandable that you’re feeling this way.
  • Let them know you’re there for them: I don’t know what to say, but I’m here for you and I’ve got your back. You’ll get through this; we’ll get through this. Is there anything I can do today to lighten your load?
  • Affirm your belief in them and their future: You’ve got this. I know you’ll get through this. How can I support you through this? I’m here for you each step of the way.

5.  Confront reality, but retain hope.

Difficult emotions and optimism are not mutually exclusive. You can still feel negative in some aspect of your life but optimistic about your future.

Right now, I am bummed that my family is dispersed over three continents and international travel restrictions prevent me from planning when I can see them next. Yet I know we will eventually be able to wrap each other in big hugs and it will be one glorious day.

Change is nature’s imperative. So honor whatever emotions you are feeling while simultaneously keeping faith that the future holds much to look forward to. However bad things feel now, they won’t feel this way forever.

Living a full life means living a brave life. There is no place for toxic positivity in that space. After all, courage arises by confronting our deepest fears, not by denying them.

Sometimes allowing yourself to feel bad can be the best thing you can do for yourself.