Life is filled with emotional bumps, bruises, illnesses, and strains. In Psychology Today blogger Guy Winch’s new book, Emotional First Aid, you can gain insight into why such experiences as rejection, loss, and failure hurt so much and how you can overcome the psychological injuries these can create.
We can all benefit from self-help books with a solid empirical basis that translate technical jargon into practical advice, and Winch’s book definitely falls in that category. He analyzes the 7 most difficult situations we face in our lives and provides remedies for each. Carrying the injury and illness metaphor throughout, he shows how we can repair our emotionally broken bones to recover from the poison of guilt, and overcome other common deficiencies of our emotion repair system.
Let’s take a look at these 7 sources of emotional injury and briefly examine their cures or antidotes:
1. Cuts and scrapes caused by rejection. Whether a friend stops returning your calls, a lover breaks up with you, someone unfriends you on Facebook, or your work buddiessnub you, even if unintentionally, it hurts. You may become angry at them, yourself, or the world in general. Even if the rejection is a slight one, it can be enough to cause you question your self-worth. Winch’s remedy for rejection involves a four-pronged strategy: Don’t accept self-criticism, rebuild your self-worth by focusing on your strengths, find other people to fill the void, and desensitize yourself to the pain of future rejection through practice bouts in which you set yourself up for mild rejections that you can readily overcome.
2. The relationship muscle weakness of loneliness. People can become or remain lonely through sheer atrophy, according to Winch. The longer you go without relating closely to others, the more difficult it becomes to reestablish contact with new people, or even get back in touch with the old friends you’ve drifted away from. The good doctor recommends a set of strategies targeted to the specific cause of your loneliness. If you’re convinced that no one could ever love or care about you, try to fight that pessimism with some logical counter-arguments. That pessimism might include believing that others are always thinking negatively about you. Here again, try some logic to counter your skepticism by questioning your own negative assumptions. A variant of this skepticism is the tendency to engage in self-defeating behaviors that serve, ironically, to confirm your worst suspicions. Exercising your empathy can also strengthen your relationship muscles, making it more likely that those you care about will want to be close to you. One relatively easy strategy, though it requires some commitment, is to adopt a pet on whom you can practice getting and giving emotional rewards.
3. Broken bones of loss and trauma. Distress is a natural emotion thatresults when someone close to you dies or you suffer a traumatic experience involving your own safety. Some people seem to have a natural resilience, however, or at least an ability to recover that they develop over the course of their lives. As Winch states, “Loss and trauma can shatter the pieces of our lives, ravage our relationships, and subvert our very identities” (p. 85). The experience of loss also shatters your assumptions about the world, making you realize that it’s not as safe a place as you once thought. Winch wisely recommends that particularly in the immediate aftermath, you find a way to ease the pain that is consistent with your ordinary coping style. It may be too early for you to examine the meaning of the loss for your life and your future; instead, you may be better able to recover by giving yourself more time to heal.
4. The poisonous effect of guilt. Rejection, loneliness, and loss are painful experiences caused, in part, by our need for strong connections with others. In guilt, you essentially are the source of your own unhappiness. Guilt can be adaptive when it shows you where you’ve strayed from your own moral compass. However, just as often as not, it’s unhealthy. Winch describes the three types of unhealthy guilt as unresolved, survivor, and separation (or disloyalty). Unresolved guilt refers to the feelings left behind when you believe you may not have completely apologized for a wrong you committed against another person even though, in reality, you did. Survivor guilt occurs when you literally outlive someone in a case where you easily could have died yourself. In separation guilt, you feel that you don’t have the right to pursue your own independent life and success because to do so makes others seem flawed in comparison. To overcome guilt, you need either to apologize (for the unresolved variety) or apologize to and then forgive yourself (for survivor or separation guilt). After you’ve forgiven yourself, you need to feel that it’s okay for you to re-engage with your life and go on to enjoy that success you feel so guilty about. The people you think you’re being disloyal to may, to your surprise, be the first in line to cheer you on.
5. Emotional scabs of rumination. Going over and over the unpleasant or disappointing experiences in your life, whether real or imagined, takes its toll on your well-being. Like a scar that you pick at over and over again, it will leave a permanent mark unless you learn how to stop. Winch points out that rumination not only causes you to relive the pain of the initial experience, but also saps your cognitive resources by draining away your mental energy and causing you to lose focus. The first step to overcoming rumination is to realize that other people don’t see the world the same way that you do. Make a mistake? Fail at an important goal? Trip and fall while walking down the street? The chances are, according to Winch, that you’re the one most aware of your small slip-ups. Once you realize this, you’ll be less likely to replay the event in your mind’s eye. If that doesn’t work, you can to distract yourself by focusing on something else. Like getting toddlers to play with their actual toys and not the dangerous objects near the ground that more often attract them, you need to by your own mom and make the harmless playthings look like fun. If it’s anger at someone else that you’re mulling over, try to put a positive spin on it. When people tease you or try to make you feel inadequate, reframe things so that you see their jabs as motivational fuel for your own self-improvement. By Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D
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