I wrote a post a while back where I talked about how I try to frequently think about my death. It was kind of a weird concept, but the point was that I think about death to remind myself to live well. Having a healthy relationship with death helps me have a healthy relationship with life.
While I felt totally comfortable writing about it on the blog, I’ve realized it’s not a popular topic at dinner parties. “Sarah, can you pass the mashed potatoes? Also, have you considered your imminent end lately?” is not polite table manners.
For real though, it’s really hard to talk about death in American society without being met with resistance. People don’t like to talk about death, and I think it’s because we don’t like to think about death either. We have negative emotions about it, and we don’t like to feel negative emotions. Ever.
Which is the topic of this post. Negative emotions. And how we numb ourselves to them.
If you follow me on Facebook, you may remember that a couple months ago I posted a Ted Talk by Brené Brown, a researcher and author who discusses the importance of vulnerability. In the video, Brown talks about how we numb ourselves to feelings of fear, shame, disappointment, and other things we don’t want to deal with.
She notes that when we are feeling too vulnerable about something – a call from a doctor, rejection from a significant other, disappointment from an employer – we use various unhealthy coping mechanisms to dull these feelings. We overeat, we drink too much, we buy things we don’t need, we self-medicate. We throw ourselves too fully into our jobs or social lives.
We don’t know how to deal with the problems in front of us in a healthy way. So we handle them the only way we know how: by pushing them deeper and deeper inside us so we don’t have to acknowledge them. We numb ourselves.
But the thing about numbing ourselves, Brown says, is that we can’t “selectively numb,” as she puts it. We can’t numb disappointment without numbing happiness. We can’t numb fear without numbing joy.
In other words, when we numb our negative emotions, we keep ourselves from living a full and joyous life. We prevent ourselves from leaning into the big and small moments of happiness and thrills that come with being alive.
So what do we do? How do we keep ourselves from numbing those negative feelings? How do we handle them in a healthy way without falling apart?
Here are a few suggestions on how to get started unpacking fear, disappointment, sadness, and other feelings we don’t like to deal with:
- Therapy. This is a great tool that helps people sort through their emotions in a safe setting. And if your therapist is any good, he/she will also give you the coping mechanisms to handle these emotions when you’re alone, too.
- Journaling. If you follow my blog, you know I use my journal as a place where I can talk about whatever I’m struggling with and find solutions to problems, or at least better understand how I relate to these problems. For someone who can’t think in straight lines and won’t be able to focus on how I’m truly feeling about things if I just leave it up to my easily-distracted brain, writing out my feelings helps me pay attention to the task at hand: understanding my negative emotions and handling them in a healthy way so I can enjoy my life.
- Processing with a friend. Having a few people to call when you’re going through a crisis is a great resource for dealing with emotions. These people should be good listeners who will let you just talk without providing any solutions, input, or judgment.
- Exercise. I know some people who like to take long walks or go on runs when they have a big issue they need to think about. They find exercise really helpful to their de-numbing process. Plus, endorphins! Everyone likes those.
There are so many more strategies for acknowledging and dealing with negative emotions in a healthy way. It can be scary to do this, but it’s important if we want to live fully.
What do you like to do to handle negative feelings in a healthy way?