Turning Straw Into Gold

Life through a Buddhist lens

Highly Recommended: Guy Winch’s Book, “Emotional First Aid”

Guy Winch’s “Emotional First Aid” turned out to be just what I needed.

I was first introduced to Guy Winch through his popular blog at Psychology Today. His writing resonates with me because it’s practical, whether he’s explaining how to make an effective apology (here) or discussing the keys to recovering from failure (here).

I was looking forward to reading his new book, Emotional First Aid, and I was not disappointed. In the book, he focuses on seven emotional injuries that everyone is likely to encounter at one time or another in life. These psychological wounds can be thought of as the “scrapes and bruises” of the human experience:

This may seem like a daunting list, but Winch’s book is optimistic. He sees the presence of these emotions as injuries in the mind, in the same way that a cut is an injury in the body. Just as we render first aid to physical injuries, we can learn to render first aid to emotional ones.

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Winch’s idea of applying first aid to the mind is unique and effective. I like the parallels he draws to physical injuries. If we apply first aid right away to a physical injury, not only do we minimize the risk of it festering until it requires professional medical intervention, we also accelerate healing. In the same way, when we render first aid to everyday emotional injuries, we’re taking care of them before they increase in intensity and become so deeply imbedded in our psyche that they may be too difficult for us to handle on our own.

Most of us are in the habit of washing and bandaging a cut knee right away but, according to Winch, we often don’t recognize that we’ve been wounded emotionally. And, even if we do, we may underestimate the potential impact of the mental bruise, so we don’t take immediate steps to minimize its effect on our lives. Winch, a psychologist in private practice, offers steps we can take immediately in the face of rejection, loneliness, loss and trauma, guilt, rumination, failure, and low self-esteem.

I’ll use the chapter on rejection to illustrate how I’ve benefitted personally from reading Emotional First Aid. Reading the chapter brought into sharp focus a fresh emotional wound of my own. I’d recently posed an article at Psychology Today that was part lighthearted, part serious. It was titled “More Confessions of a Sick Person.” A reader left this anonymous comment: “…a lot of people are irritated by your whole marketing schtick, don't want to read about your scuffs or your nightshirts (first world privilege complaints?), and don't believe you gained all that buddhist wisdom lying in bed.” Even though this comment sat in the middle of dozens of other comments from people who loved the article, this was the one that stuck in my mind…stuck and stung.

It wasn’t until I got to the chapter on rejection in Emotional First Aid that I understood why this person’s comment was upsetting me so much: I felt rejected. Even though I don’t know the person who left the comment, even though I knew that it was an unwarranted attack on my intentions in writing for Psychology Today, and even though the comment reflected a misunderstanding of the relationship between chronic illness and Buddhism in my life…I still felt rejected.

With each of the seven emotional wounds, Winch begins by discussing the negative consequences of letting it go untreated. In the case of rejection, our self-esteem and self-confidence can suffer, we can become prone to outburst of anger, our ability to think clearly can be impeded, and we can lose our sense of belonging. My response to this comment had triggered two of those negative consequences: The comment was having a negative effect on my self-confidence, and it was clouding my ability to think clearly. (It was doing the latter because I was feeling hurt even though there was no rational reason for me to feel that way!) And so, the chapter on rejection had helped me recognize both the presence of this emotional wound in my life and the negative effects it was having on me.

Winch’s next instruction is to “open our psychological medicine cabinet” and see what self-treatment options are available. (I should add that, at the end of the chapter on each emotional wound, he provides clear guidelines for assessing if it’s time to forego self-treatment in favor of consulting a mental health professional.)

Depending on the emotional injury that a rejection has inflicted, there are four self-treatment options: countering self-criticism; reviving self-worth; replenishing feelings of social connection; and becoming desensitized to rejection.

Readers familiar with my writing will recognize the first option as a recurring theme for me. Winch wisely points out, “In order to avoid kicking ourselves when we’re down, we have to be able to ‘argue’ with our self-critical voice and adopt a kinder perspective.” (I write about this in “Have You Listened to Your Self-Talk Lately?”) Winch then goes on to offer several valuable exercises to help us learn to reverse our negative self-talk.

In fact, what I like about all of the self-treatment options in the book is that Winch does more than describe them as theories. He provides concrete exercises we can try. The exercises often involve getting out a pen and making a list or otherwise putting our thoughts on paper. In my experience, putting thoughts on paper (or on even on the computer) is an excellent way to put theory into practice and can be the key to meaningful change.

To return to the example of the reader’s comment that left me feeling rejected, I decided to try this first-aid treatment: “replenishing feelings of social connection.” Many people had posted comments In direct response to this person’s comment or had sent me supportive emails or Facebook messages. And so, adapting Winch’s suggested first-aid treatment to my particular situation, I turned to these people for “social connection” by carefully reading their kind and supportive responses. Immersing myself in the words of those who care for me filled me with feelings of warmth. As a result, the pain of rejection faded.

In addition, I shared the original comment with my husband. Connecting with him in this was very helpful because he reminded me what my true intentions were in writing for Psychology Today, and he encouraged me to focus on the other responses to my piece instead of this one lone comment.

Winch’s emotional first-aid worked. What’s more, it was a revelation to me, because it had never occurred to me to “treat” this painful rejection by connecting with those who care about me. By replenishing my feelings of connection to others, the wound of rejection healed, and even writing about it here does not give it new life.

I’m only touching the surface of what Winch suggests we can do here, but I wanted to use an example from my own life so you could see how we can effectively heal an emotional wound if it’s caught early, before it has time to mushroom into a full-blown sense of diminished self-worth.

Like a lot of sound advice, once a suggestion registers as a possibility (in this case, connecting with others), it seems obvious. But it first has to register. In this way, even though Winch and I come from different backgrounds (mine Buddhist and his as a therapist), we are both trying to accomplish the same thing in our books: enhance people’s awareness of what’s going on in their minds and, if what’s going on is a psychological wound, learn some practical, concrete skills for “treating” it.

I hope I’ve given you a sense of how helpful this book is. Winch uses the same approach in discussing the six other psychological wounds we tend to encounter in everyday life. He uses examples from clients’ lives to help us recognize if we’ve been subject to the same emotional injuries and to illustrate clearly how to administer first aid. Here’s a sampling from the other chapters that I found to be particularly helpful.

  • Treating loneliness by learning to question the validity of the negative stories we tell ourselves about what will happen if we try to connect socially with others. For example, we may have developed self-defeating habits where we’ve convinced ourselves that others don’t care about us or that we’ll be too awkward if we try to connect with them. These are distortions of reality that we can learn to counter by, in Winch’s words “developing our relationship muscles.” There’s an excellent discussion of how to do this, and it includes forging online relationships for those whose in-person options are limited (as I know is the case for many of my readers).
  • An in-depth discussion of the toxic effects of excessive guilt and how to counter it by, when possible, mending the rupture with the person we’ve harmed by learning how to effectively apologize; and, when this is not possible, administering first-aid to ourselves in the form of self-forgiveness.
  • Using a writing exercise to help heal the emotional wounds that result from failure by identifying the positive lessons from the experience. This helps us regain our self-confidence and our motivation to move forward in a constructive way, which involves, among other things, overcoming feelings of pessimism and helplessness, and instead, focusing our energy on those factors in our lives over which we have control.

I learned so much from Emotional First Aid. Not only did I become more aware of emotional wounds I’d been ignoring but which were having a negative effect on my life, but I filled my psychological medicine chest with easy-to-learn, but effective treatment options. I’m grateful to Guy Winch for writing this book.

© 2014 Toni Bernhard www.tonibernhard.com

My most recent book is titled How to Wake Up: A Buddhist-Inspired Guide to Navigating Joy and Sorrow.

I'm also the author of the award-winning How to Be Sick: A Buddhist-Inspired Guide for the Chronically Ill and their Caregivers

Using the envelope icon, you can email this piece to others. You can also subscribe to my blog (see the choices below my picture). I’m active on FacebookPinterest, and (to a lesser extent) Twitter.

Toni Bernhard, J.D., is a former law professor at University of California at Davis. She wrote the award-winning How to Be Sick and, recently, How to Wake Up.

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