“We cannot tell what may happen to us in the strange medley of life. But we can decide what happens in us—how we can take it, what we do with it—and that is what really counts in the end.” ~Joseph Fort Newton
Life is messy. Sometimes it’s so beautiful that I feel blinded by the glory I have the privilege of bearing witness to. Other times, I have felt such deep despair that I thought my tears would never end.
Unfortunately, my husband and I endured the deepest despair we could possibly imagine immediately following what should have been our happiest memory—the birth of our son.
After he was born he could not take his first breath and we almost lost him. Our beautiful little boy that I had nurtured in my belly, prepared for, sang to, and dreamed about for nine months was struggling to hang on to life before our very eyes.
He was resuscitated and could not breathe on his own for a number of hours while we waited with baited breath and mostly in silence, praying that he would be okay. Thanks to the brilliant nurses and our amazing hospital, our little miracle took his first breath on his own.
When the immediate shock was over and he was stable, emotional pain crept in as if it was waiting for the right moment to pounce on us.
In the days following his birth our brains started to process the horror we witnessed that we could not immediately comprehend when it was happening right in front of us, and we felt the deep despair of it all.
I wish I could say that was the only traumatic experience in my life, but of course there are many more. This just happens to be one that I will share on a public forum. I am far from alone in this. We’ll all inevitably feel emotional pain many times throughout our lives, but we are hard-wired for this emotional turbulence.
Yes, that’s what I said. We’re hard-wired and made for this, for any unwelcomed pain and anguish that stumbles on our path. For some reason in today’s society there continues to be a taboo against feeling down, even though it’s a normal and inevitable part of the human experience that we are neurologically prepared for.
In recent years the taboo against feeling down has somewhat improved. Our willingness to accept that things are not always ‘perfect’ has helped many of us face emotional turbulence in a more honest and effective way.
Over the years I gradually accepted that emotional pain will come and go. I can now see that the more I accept emotional pain as a necessary part of life, the more I can handle it with grace when the waves of sadness wash over my heart.
Ironically, the more we accept emotional pain as a natural part of our human-ness, the more emotional freedom we come to find when we are faced with despair.
I am thankful that, at this point in my life, I can acknowledge my pain and sit with it to heal from my tragedies. Many years ago I would feel miserable for feeling miserable. Today, I am likely to think, “I accept myself even though I feel miserable right now and I know I won’t feel miserable forever.”
Throughout my life and by witnessing others go through despair, I have come to learn three ultimate truths about handling emotional pain that have nothing to do with denying its existence.
If you find yourself in emotional pain, keep these truths in mind so that you can navigate the waters of anger, sadness, or hopelessness as peacefully as possible.
1. Memories cannot hurt you.
After something terrible happens to us, we might respond to memories with fear, anxiety, or deep sadness.
Months after my son was born, I still had flashes of the hospital staff rushing in to resuscitate him, and my poor husband had intrusive thoughts about our son turning blue. These memories left us feeling hopeless and fearful, as if it were happening again.
We naturally want to push those thoughts away as quickly as possible or distract ourselves with anything else that takes our mind off of it. However, the more we push away negative memories, the longer we prolong our emotional freedom from it.
It often helps to acknowledge that this is indeed a negative memory; however, it already happened and cannot hurt you any more in the present. Sometimes you actually need to talk your way through it and give yourself reassurance that you are okay right now in this moment.
2. Every emotion is temporary.
Any emotion known to man is a fleeting, impermanent state (even the happy ones). Think of them like waves. Sometimes you can see it coming, other times it catches you by surprise. Some waves are bigger than others; however, by their nature they come and go.
It is hard to imagine how my husband and I were able to sit in the same room and get through the hospital staff resuscitating our baby boy, but we did. The emotions that we felt in that moment did not stay with us. They were a temporary state of being. We will never be fully ‘healed’ from this experience, but the emotional state changes with time.
When you are experiencing despair acknowledge that this, too, is temporary (even if it doesn’t feel like it at the moment) and will inevitably pass or change into a different emotional state.
3. It’s okay to give yourself a ‘time out’ from your feelings and negative thoughts.
Even though our emotions are transient states, sometimes we need to temporarily avoid negative thoughts and feelings to get through something specific (like a meeting at work, grocery shopping, or other necessary parts of life).
After my son was born there was no time to feel sorry for what he went through or for myself to have almost lost him. He had to be fed, changed, held, and loved. When negative thoughts interfered I needed to find ways to stop ruminations quickly (even if only for a few minutes).
There are many ways to temporarily stop negative thinking. Here are a few things I used to help myself cope when negative thoughts and memories crept in:
- Deep Breathing: Counting the breath is very therapeutic. I would breathe and count on the exhale up to ten, and then start over at one again. I recommend doing this two to three times until you have successfully stopped rumination. If negative thoughts interrupt you, notice that it happened, let it go, and continue the practice.
- Soothing Sensations: Comforting sensations such as a hot bath, a warm cup of tea, or a pleasant smell can bring a sense of peace. Focus on this completely to self-soothe and stop negative thoughts.
- Laughter: I often distracted myself from negative thoughts and memories with humor. Watch a funny clip on the Internet or call a friend that always makes you laugh. In a time crunch, you can simply think of something that always helps you laugh or smile.
We are stronger than we give ourselves credit for. It’s amazing that we have the power to handle emotional distress by simply acknowledging its presence and giving ourselves permission to feel our feelings.
At the end of the day, these unwelcomed moments give us rich emotional experience because we couldn’t appreciate the gift of happiness if it were not for moments of despair to compare it to. This is not to say that we should welcome more anguish, but to instead remember the cliché, “no rain, no rainbows.”