A Roadmap to Building Emotional Courage

Experiencing the full range of emotions is actually normal and healthy.

Dr. Amanda Seavey headshot

By Dr. Amanda Seavey, Phd

Introduction

Over the course of a lifetime we are likely to have many experiences that bring up difficult or uncomfortable emotions, and how we handle it can have a major impact on our lives.

 

If you’ve ever found yourself wanting to escape from feelings of fear, sadness, anger or vulnerability, then you are far from alone. We are quick to label emotions as good or bad, positive or negative. And quicker still to want to get rid of any ‘negative’ emotions.

 

Yet, stress, pain and discomfort are a part of life.

 

As a psychologist and advocate for whole-self wellness, I cringe when I hear messages suggesting that we should all feel happy and that something is ‘wrong’ with us if we don’t.

 

Experiencing the full range of emotions is actually normal and healthy.

 

Suppressing or avoiding emotions often leads to more suffering. Known as amplification, the more we try to ignore or push away an emotion, the more powerful it becomes. Not only does such avoidance come at a significant cost, but we also miss out on the important and rich information that comes with courageously feeling our difficult emotions.

As a psychologist and advocate for whole-self wellness, I cringe when I hear messages suggesting that we should all feel happy and that something is ‘wrong’ with us if we don’t.

Dr. Amanda Seavey, PhD

So What Good Are Emotions Anyway?

Emotions provide us with information: 

Emotions provide us with information about ourselves and the world around us.

  • Sadness or fear may tell us about something that needs to be changed in our life. 
  • Anger may tell us that one of our boundaries is being crossed.
  • Love and happiness may point us in the direction of our core values and the path to building a meaningful life.

Emotions motivate action:

Ask yourself this – how often would you be motivated to do something challenging without emotion? 

Difficult conversations about boundary setting are, to some degree, motivated by anger or frustration. We often want to take action and go the extra mile because we’re moved (by emotion) to do so.

Emotions communicate with others around us:

One of the most powerful purposes of emotions is to communicate with and connect us to others. 

Think about the last time you saw someone you know crying. There’s a good chance you felt a bit more connected to them, that you felt you knew them a little bit better and, perhaps, wanted to reach out to support them.

Emotions help us learn how to deal with other difficult emotions:

Just the experience of being sad, angry or upset can help us get better at relating to and dealing with our difficult emotions. Just like runners train by running and swimmers train by swimming, the more experience we have relating to difficult emotions in healthy ways, then the more skilled we become at it. And the world we live in does require us to deal with difficult emotions on a regular basis. As Brene Brown says, “The willingness to show up changes us. It makes us a little braver each time”.

How to Build Emotional Courage

To build emotional courage, next time you are feeling overwhelmed by difficult emotions:

  • Acknowledge your emotion.
    • Identify what it is you’re feeling. Just by naming the feeling you’ll find it loses a bit of its power. If you struggle to figure out the exact name, just be curious about the experience you are having. Imagine what shape it might take or what color it might be. Or notice what physical sensations are present.

 

  • Acknowledge that it’s already here.
    • If you’ve noticed it, it’s already present. Instead of pushing it away, accept what already is. If/when we try and push away difficult emotions, they become amplified or trigger a chain reaction of other difficult emotions (e.g., feeling afraid, then feeling angry that you’re afraid, then feeling sad that you’re angry that you’re afraid, etc).

 

  • Recognize its usefulness.
    • If it’s too hard to identify usefulness at first, see if you can acknowledge that it may be useful at some point even if it’s currently too difficult to tell what that will be.

 

  • Be kind to yourself.
    • Show yourself compassion just like you would for a close friend who was going through this difficult experience. Think what you might say to him/her and say the same things to yourself.

 

  • Remind yourself that this isn’t who you are.
    • Rather, this is something you are experiencing temporarily. You are the sky and your emotions are the weather.

 

  • Breathe deeply and stay mindful.
    • In other words, intentionally be in the present moment versus the past or the future. Ground yourself in your 5 senses. What can you hear, what physical sensations do you notice, etc?

 

  • Notice judgments that pop up.
    • Are you naming the experience as good/bad or right/wrong? If so, it’s unlikely to be helpful. See if you can stick with descriptions without judgment.

 

  • Learn more about yourself through this emotion.
    • Dig deep. Ask questions such as: When have you felt this way before? What patterns are emerging? What might this emotion be telling you?

 

  • Talk to a friend or therapist about how you’re feeling to get support.
    • One of the greatest purposes of experiencing difficult emotions is in our ability to connect deeply with others.

 

  • Give yourself credit for being courageous enough to authentically experience your emotions. This is incredibly difficult work and you deserve credit. Celebrating the success of experiencing difficult emotions will support your ongoing work towards emotional courage.
    • At one point or another, we are all faced with difficult emotions.  Just like you must continually lift weights to build and maintain muscle, building and maintaining emotional courage also takes continued practice.  In the end, the benefits to mental health make the effort well worth it.

 

 

 

Disclaimer: The above information is to be used for informational purposes only, and should be used at your own risk. It is not intended to replace professional care. Please consult with your doctor or mental health provider.

Amanda Seavey, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist and founder of Clarity Psychological Wellness in Raleigh, North Carolina. Clarity Psychological Wellness is a thriving psychology practice offering therapy to individuals, couples and groups in North Raleigh. Dr. Seavey has specialized training in Dialectical Behavior Therapy, Motivational Interviewing and Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy. Additionally, Dr. Seavey teaches classes on mindfulness meditation throughout the triangle.

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