Home Lifestyle Self-Compassion Is the Key to Managing an Emotion – Psychology Today

Self-Compassion Is the Key to Managing an Emotion – Psychology Today

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Self-forgiveness is one of the most essential, and most difficult, steps toward better mental health. Here's how we can overcome bitterness and finally let ourselves off the hook.
Verified by Psychology Today
Posted February 6, 2022 | Reviewed by Tyler Woods
Once you fully accept a painful feeling and have compassion for yourself for having it, you turn the tables on that feeling. You start transferring its power right over to yourself.
Whether it’s fear, anxiety, sadness, loss, hurt, or anger, feelings can be one of the biggest challenges of our lives.
What do you do when you have an unpleasant emotion that is bothering you throughout the day?
How do you handle a difficult feeling if it keeps recurring, seems to come out of nowhere, or makes little sense to you?
And now, one last consideration: What if you grew up in a family that paid little attention to the feelings of its members? A family that didn’t talk much about feelings, name them, discuss them, or teach you how to manage them?
This is the definition of childhood emotional neglect, and it happens in countless unsuspecting, otherwise healthy families every single day.
If you grew up in an emotionally neglectful family that ignored or under-responded to your feelings, you most likely didn’t have the opportunity to learn from your parents how to manage or process your emotions. The situations described above may seem perplexing or overwhelming for you.
So when you feel something, you may tend to ignore it, run from it, or try to escape it, the classic coping strategies of the emotionally neglected.
None of these strategies is effective or healthy, mostly because ignored, avoided, or escaped feelings don’t actually go away. They don’t get processed or understood, and you have no opportunity to learn what they have to teach you about yourself and your life.
Let’s consider an example. Tia is having an emotion, but she is not aware. She is judging herself for having the feeling instead of processing and managing it.
It’s a beautiful, sunny Saturday in San Diego and 32-year-old Tia is sitting on the couch in her apartment trying to decide whether to watch TV or go to the gym. Scanning through shows that Netflix recommends for her, she idly adds show after show to her watch list, realizing in the back of her mind that she’ll likely never watch them.
“What’s my problem?” she wonders. “It’s a gorgeous day out and I’m just sitting here like a lump.” Still, she is stymied by a sense of inertia gluing her to the couch.
“I get this way every Saturday, I’m such a lazy person,” she thinks. “If any of my friends knew what I’m really like they probably wouldn’t want to hang out with me anymore. They’re probably all playing sports or at the gym or doing some fun activity while here I just sit.”
As a psychologist who specializes in childhood emotional neglect, every day I work with people who are not very aware of their feelings. Interestingly, most of those folks are also very hard on themselves, like Tia.
One of the most powerful skills I teach people is how to face, process, and manage a difficult, painful, confusing, or recurring emotion. Emotion management happens in a series of steps.
If you, like Tia, misinterpret your emotions as something negative, a sign of weakness, then you, like Tia, may remain stuck, mired in a feeling that has all the power over you. On the other hand, if you stop, take note, and practice curiosity about your experience, you can make sense of what you are feeling.
But this requires you to have some compassion for yourself.
Self-compassion has been shown by multiple studies to be an effective way to calm and soothe painful feelings.
Realizing something is not quite right, Tia surmises that she may be feeling something important that is hindering her. She closes her eyes, focuses inward, and identifies a heaviness in her heart. On closer examination, she notices that it’s an uneasy, empty, alone feeling.
Inquiring within about why she might be feeling uneasy, empty, and alone today, Tia realizes that it’s been one month since her best friend and roommate, Carmen, moved out. They used to spend every Saturday morning together, going to the gym and getting smoothies.
Accepting that she has suffered a loss and that her feelings are reminding her of this, she thinks it through, noting that she has never really faced the fact that Carmen is living in another state now. With tears running down her cheeks, she lets the feelings pass over her like a wave.
Feeling a sense of relief and self-understanding, she walks with light feet out the door. On her way to the gym, she thinks about what new routine she can create that will lift her spirits and structure her Saturday mornings from now on.
When Tia turned her self-attack on its head and practiced self-compassion, she was able to sit with her true self, her feeling self. She gained self-awareness, self-understanding, self-soothing, and practiced self-care.
You can do what Tia did and it will make a profound difference in your life.
Turn, “Why am I so lazy?” into, “Am I having a feeling right now?
Turn, “What is wrong with me?” into, “What am I feeling?”
Turn, “Why can’t I ______?” into, “Why am I having this feeling in this moment?”
Showing yourself some compassion is the way to transfer the negative energy from your body right back to yourself. It’s negative power becomes your positive energy.
Then, it’s yours to use. To create, move, solve, connect, and live.
To determine whether you might be living with the effects of childhood emotional neglect, you can take the free Emotional Neglect Questionnaire. You’ll find the link in my Bio.
Himmerich, S. J., & Orcutt, H. K. (2021). Examining a brief self-compassion intervention for emotion regulation in individuals with exposure to trauma. Psychological Trauma: Theory, Research, Practice, and Policy, 13(8), 907–910. https://doi.org/10.1037/tra0001110
Munroe, M., Al-Refae, M., Chan, H. W., & Ferrari, M. (2021). Using self-compassion to grow in the face of trauma: The role of positive reframing and problem-focused coping strategies. Psychological Trauma: Theory, Research, Practice, and Policy. Advance online publication. https://doi.org/10.1037/tra0001164
Agako, A., Ballester, P., Stead, V., McCabe, R. E., & Green, S. M. (2021). Measures of emotion dysregulation: A narrative review. Canadian Psychology/Psychologie canadienne. Advance online publication. https://doi.org/10.1037/cap0000307
Jonice Webb, Ph.D., is a licensed psychologist and author of two books, Running On Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect and Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships.
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Psychology Today © 2022 Sussex Publishers, LLC
Self-forgiveness is one of the most essential, and most difficult, steps toward better mental health. Here's how we can overcome bitterness and finally let ourselves off the hook.


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