Five Creative Ways To Navigate Difficult Emotions
We feel emotions every day, sometimes more intensely than others, but at times we over-identify with them to the point they end up controlling us. If the emotions are pleasant, it feels like a wonderful rush. But if they are unpleasant, we do everything we can to avoid feeling them.
The problem with this approach is that the more we distract ourselves from the unpleasant emotion, the stronger it gets. When we push it down to hide it, it’s like we’re shoving a million things in a bag until, eventually, the bag breaks. The emotion always comes back in one way or another until we’re forced to work through it. So, what can we do to avoid this impending disaster? Manage our emotions regularly.
We need to remember we are not our emotions. Our emotions live in us and not the other way around. The following tools are excellent not just to acknowledge this rationally but also to experience it.
1. Turn the emotion into something tangible.
Think of the emotion you want to work with and really feel it. Locate the area in your body where that emotion lives. Then ask yourself: If that emotion had a shape, what would it look like? How would it feel to the touch? Would it have a smell? Just use your imagination. Play with it. Give this shape a name. Imagine you take it out of your body and observe it. See yourself touching it. Notice every detail.
Once you do this, perhaps you’ll realise that emotion is not as big and threatening as you thought. After all, it lives inside your body, so it can’t be bigger than you. And if you can visualise it outside of your body, that must mean… that emotion is not you! Which makes it much more manageable.
I’ve guided other people through this exercise and I’ve done it myself in therapy and it’s quite magical. I love playing with my imagination. But if this is not your favourite thing to do, try the next tool.
2. Have a dialogue with the emotion, either on paper or out loud.
What? Are you crazy? You want me to talk alone? Yes! I think society should embrace this practice. We learn so much about ourselves by talking to ourselves. But hey, if you don’t want to talk out loud, you can always write. That is my preferred method as well.
For this practice, it might be helpful to imagine the emotion you’re dealing with as a person or entity that you can actually visualise talking back to you. You can start by expressing how you feel about that emotion. If you don’t want to feel it, say so. If you judge that emotion, share why. Say whatever you need to say, vent if you have to. But then you have to give the emotion a chance to speak.
Ask that emotion: Why are you showing up? And then put yourself in the place of that emotion and answer. Ultimately, you need to realise your emotions don’t show up for the sake of it or to mess up with you. They are designed to protect you, even if it doesn’t seem that way at first. Once you have a dialogue with your emotions, you’ll get a bigger perspective.
3. Connect with the universality of the emotion.
Isn’t it funny how we all think we’re the only ones feeling a certain way? All animals experience emotions. Humans have just developed a more complex emotional system than the rest. But there are about eight billion people on the planet right now, all breathing, all feeling. When we connect to this truth, the heaviness we associate with our feelings vanishes a little.
You’ll want to sit somewhere comfortable in order to do this practice. It only takes a few minutes. You don’t have to do anything but consciously think of all the people out there who feel the same way you’re feeling right now. Even when we think we’re alone, we’re not. There are physical walls all around us but we are more connected to one another than we think.
So, go ahead and feel your emotions together. If you’re grieving, I guarantee you there are millions of people grieving too. If you’re anxious, hey, there’s an anxiety epidemic that keeps growing and growing. If you feel unworthy, I’ll let you in a secret: Most other people do too. Imagine them and visualise you all sharing the same grief, the same anxiety, the same feeling of unworthiness. All feelings are universal. Let the energy of these people accompany you.
4. Draw or paint the emotion.
Before you start, it helps if you connect with the emotion in particular. Just sit down for a couple of minutes, locate the emotion in the body and really feel it. Then grab a pen, pencil or paintbrush and let your hand do the work. It doesn’t have to be a great drawing or painting. It doesn’t even have to make sense! Don’t think. The point is to let the emotion out and express it on paper.
Just to show you how irrelevant it is to make it perfect (or even good), here are some examples from the times I’ve used this tool:
5. Ask a fictional character for help.
I love books and movies. Most of the time I choose what to read or watch based on how I want to feel. It’s human nature to want to see ourselves represented by a character and it can actually be an extremely cathartic experience.
When my father died, all I wanted to do was consume books and movies about death, grief and loss. I needed fictional characters to walk this path with me. I needed to witness their stories and see how they processed it all. They helped me connect with the sadness within me. This made the grieving process easier.
Sometimes I choose a book or movie that portrays a character I want to emulate. Usually, it’s their strength and courage I seek. When I feel like I can’t handle something, I look for stories about people who might be struggling but somehow find it in them to keep going and overcome their challenges.
This tool is based on the same concept as number three: the universality of emotions. It’s the same reason why group therapy works, why AA works, why just connecting with someone else going through the same thing works.
I hope you find these tools useful!