When was the last time someone told you ‘hey, just relax, it’s not a big deal’ (or something similar)?
Did you know it wasn’t a big deal but found yourself unable to relax anyway?
Or perhaps you guessed the negative reaction you’d get if you told them how much a little thing was bothering you, so you kept it inside, only to explode or implode later with the pressure of doing that.
Whenever our reaction is out of proportion to the situation, it’s a good indication that we’re not really upset about the situation itself. We’re upset about something that happened in the past, that this situation reminds us of. The little situation brings up big feelings. Big uncomfortable feelings that we don’t want to feel. And that link to the past, and the big feelings, is why you can’t just take the well meaning advice to let it go. It can be really isolating, because you know, and the people around you know, that what you’re upset about isn’t worth being so upset about. It’s confusing and maybe embarrassing. Which all adds to the big uncomfortable feelings you’re feeling!
When this happens, most people struggle to understand what’s really going on. They don’t assess why such a ‘little’ thing is having such a big impact on them. They don’t look for what they’re telling themselves that’s made them so sensitive to the situation. They just try to control or get rid of the situation to make the feelings go away.
This is a problem for two reasons: Firstly, as you may have noticed, trying to control the environment/ other people doesn’t work. Chaos and randomness pop up at regular intervals and other people tend to live by their agendas, not ours. Secondly, even if you do control this situation, you’re not dealing with the real issue. You can exert some control over your life to make the feelings go away, but eventually they’ll just come back again, some other time, in a different situation, one that you can’t control. It’s like having a big cut on your leg that’s not healing. Life happens, and every so often it’s going to get knocked and really hurt. The solution isn’t to not live your life or expect that others should avoid ever knocking you, the solution is to get the cut to heal so you can take being knocked without it hurting so much.
How do you do this?
Identify the problem
Next time you have a big emotional reaction to a situation, actively avoid trying to solve the situation. Don’t distract yourself. Don’t ask other people to change. Instead, take a look at how the situation is making you feel. It might take a while to identify all the feelings. For example, rage and anger are ‘surface’ feelings – you’re angry at being made to feel a different feeling, and anger is one way to try to change the situation. Underneath anger is usually a fear of having to feel another feeling. Some common source feelings in these type of situations are:
Learn to cope with that feeling
Even though feelings are painful, they can’t kill you. Learning to sit with a feeling, without needing to change it, or to change the situation, is a powerful skill. When you’re not afraid of feelings, when you can feel them clearly and allow them to be there, you maximise the speed at which the feeling can disappear! It’s one of those funny situations where resisting what you don’t want just brings more of it.
To learn about how to do it, read my blog post about expansion here.
Learn to cope with that feeling in another way
This is an optional step that many people find helpful, but is not necessary. It’s to work out where that feeling came from. This appeals to our logical side, which likes to have reasons for things. For many people, it helps them to bear a feeling of loneliness is they can tie that feeling to the earlier memory of not having any friends in primary school. It helps them to understand that this feeling is reminding them of that experience, and that’s why it’s painful.
You then get to use other techniques to manage the feeling, such as reminding yourself ‘yes, this hurts, but I’m not in primary school anymore. I’m an adult. I can cope with feeling lonely, and I have more power to avoid loneliness than I did as a child.’ You can shorten this to something more like ‘Oh, this has hit play on the lonely story again’ every time you notice that a small situation has created big feelings. For many people, just understanding a feeling resolves some of the feeling.
Take effective action
The first part of taking effective action is to do some work in your life, in areas which are under your control, to feel the opposite of the way you identified you were feeling in step one. So if your underlying feeling was helpless, then you need to create more situations in your life where you feel empowered. If you felt lonely, then you need to make more efforts to connect with people.
This starts to undo the ‘sting’ in these big feelings. You can cope with feeling helpless occasionally much better if you generally feel empowered. It’s alright to feel a bit lonely sometimes if generally, you know that you are supported by, and connected to, other people. It also shows you that you have the power to create positive change, as you go out and actively create more of what you want, instead of being afraid of what you don’t want (i.e. avoiding those situations that make you feel helpless).
An additional add on here is to make lists of all the times you feel these ‘opposite’, positive feelings like empowerment or a connection with others. Then if a really big feeling derails you, or for that feeling that is a major theme throughout your life, you can read through these lists to lessen the thoughts that often come along with negative feelings – things like ‘I’m always alone’ when feeling lonely.
Effective Action Part II
The second part of effective action is to (finally!) resolve the situation that caused the feeling in the first place. Just because the situation did create some big feelings in you doesn’t automatically mean the situation itself doesn’t need some attention. Yes, you may have overreacted to your partner’s hurtful comments, but still, if they were hurtful, they need to know that it’s not okay to treat you like that!
This is the last step because in order to constructively resolve a situation, you need to have a clear head. You need to have dealt with most of the big feelings to see if the situation itself actually needs to change. Once you’ve cleared the big feelings you can act, and to act appropriately, rather than react – and over react!
So there you have it. A three point plan to get you to be able to actually take the well meaning advice to ‘just relax, it’s not a big deal.’
Name the feeling
Allow the feeling
Create more of the opposite feeling
Then you can confidently reply ‘no it’s not’ or ‘yes, it is’ knowing you’re making the decision from a calm, rational, unwounded place.
If you need help with letting go of overwhelming feelings, book an appointment with me where we can explore what's happening for you, and how to change that feeling of overwhelmed to empowered.
Lana Hall, Psychologist. Helping you to live your best life, using the power of psychology.