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 buddies snub 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 that results 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.
6. The psychological pneumonia of failure. You’ve probably discerned a theme by now running through the situations most likely to cause pain. When you’re thwarted in your ability to reach a goal, your self-esteem is bound to take a hit (more on this below). We’ve already seen how much of a toll rumination and rejection can take; in part, the hurt you feel in these circumstances can be traced to the loss of face that accompanies mistakes and breakups. In addressing the problem of failure head on, Winch’s advice is to seek support from those closest to you who can help you gain perspective on the situation. They may also help you “get real,” and stimulate you to recognize that even though you may have failed in this one area of your life, it doesn’t mean that you are a complete and utter failure in all areas of life. By talking to someone else, you may also help to get the perspective you need so that you can look for a silver lining in the experience. Another treatment for overcoming feelings of failure applies to situations that haven’t happened yet but where you fear that your efforts will surely fall flat. Replacing anxiety, fear, and sadness with humor is another excellent way to cope with real or imagined failures. In this regard, imagining your own failure can be a major cause of performance anxiety. If you can find ways to distract yourself from your fear of failure, you can actually prevent the failure from happening.
7. Low self-esteem's danger to your emotional immunity. Having low self-esteem can certainly result from a number of the threats to your emotional health that we’ve already seen. However, once your self-esteem starts to dip, it can become a self-perpetuating process. You start to question yourself and your worth, and pretty soon you are making those mistakes and missteps that you feared would happen. With low self-esteem also comes your greater vulnerability to other people’s critical comments (real or imagined), you feel responsible for the bad things in your life, you ruminate over your frailties, and will lack the self-efficacy that you need to succeed at important life tasks. Many of the treatments Winch has already described can be applied, but in even larger doses, when it comes to building your self-esteem. These include having compassion for yourself (and those frailties) and taking a mental catalogue of your strengths. You can also allow yourself to hear compliments for the well-intentioned comments they are generally meant to be rather than questioning their sincerity. Finally, build up your mental reserves by practicing mindfulness, exercising your willpower “muscles,” and accepting the fact that occasional lapses and failures interfere with your best-intentioned efforts.
To sum up, Winch’s approach falls within the general category of cognitive-behavioral therapy which proposes that emotional change follows from changes in thoughts and behavior. Rather than becoming mired in emotional self-doubts, worry, and sadness, you can take actions that will help you see the world, and yourself, in a more positive light. When these actions don’t work, then it may be time to consult a mental health professional (a message Winch carries consistently throughout the book).
Many of the ordinary emotional lows people experience can be treated with one or more simple do-it-yourself strategies. Once you figure out which treatment to apply, the results can build your immunity and your psychological health for years to come.
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Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D. 2013