Whilst challenging events are an inevitable part of life, how we respond to them determines whether we emerge stronger from our experiences, or whether we continue to struggle in their wake. In this blog post, we highlight how the common strategy of 'putting on a brave face' and trying to carry on regardless does not always help us to move forward from difficulties in positive ways.
We all experience events in life that have the potential to challenge us in unwelcome ways. These may be caused by everyday occurrences such as ongoing personal or professional pressures or from more exceptional events such as redundancy, health problems or issues relating to adverse childhood experiences. Additionally, we may also experience internal challenges where we question where we are going in life and what we want to achieve.
All too often, rather than face these challenges head on, it can seem easier to try and carry on as we usually would. This may be because we don't want to show our perceived vulnerability to others in case we appear 'weak' or because we feel we should continue to behave in a certain or expected way. Alternatively, the emotions thrown up by the events may feel simply too distressing for us to deal with, whether we are consciously aware of this or not.
However, whilst this strategy of carrying on as normal may help us to feel that we are coping with our challenges in the short-term, it does not enable us to process our experiences - and the unsettling feelings arising from these - in ways that help us move forward positively in the long run. By contrast, we may suppress or avoid troubling emotions in the hope that they will go away - however this isn't the case and instead, negative feelings, such as sadness, anger or fear, simply remain trapped inside us, becoming stronger over time and potentially expressing themselves in more unpredictable, severe or harmful ways later on.
Failing to effectively process difficult feelings can also keep us stuck in negative emotional states, which then affect our subsequent thinking and behaviour. This makes us more likely to resort to unhelpful strategies, such as blaming ourselves or other people for our misfortunes or becoming increasingly bitter or resentful about the hand that life has dealt us. These ways of reacting do little to help us improve, adapt or grow in response to challenging experiences, and instead risks positioning us as a victim of events, believing that we have little control over our circumstances, both now and moving forward.
Additionally, in not acknowledging challenging feelings, we are also more likely to develop a habit of emotional avoidance that persists and becomes more ingrained over time. This means that when future challenges arise, they simply compound and add to our existing anguish, leading to further discomfort and anxiety. As we find it increasingly more difficult to deal with this inner turmoil, we may turn to unhealthy strategies to help us cope, such as over-eating or reliance on alcohol. Although these may serve to numb our suffering in the short-term, they are likely to create further problems that will further harm both our psychological and physical wellbeing later on.
Neglecting to process challenging emotions can also reduces the quality of our relationships with others, making us feel less satisfied and more disconnected in our social interactions. One study even suggests that suppressing negative emotions can damage the quality of our relationships with our children*. Additionally, because we appear outwardly to be functioning normally, others around us assume that we have resolved our challenges, and therefore we may not receive the social support that can be vital to helping us move forward positively in testing times. Instead we are potentially left with a sense of isolation that simply serves to increase our distress.
In order to move forward from difficult experiences in more positive ways, it is therefore important that we acknowledge, accept and move through challenging emotions, so that we can find ways to respond effectively in order to improve or effectively adapt to challenging circumstances. This may be through developing new behaviours that help us cope better with a situation, or learning to think about our challenges in a different way that will help us to find meaning from them. By doing this, difficult experiences can become a source of personal strength and learning that we can draw on to help us cope more effectively both now and when challenges inevitably arise in the future.
To find out how we can support you to move forward from difficult experiences, please get in touch.
*Le, B. M. and Impett, E. A. (2016) ‘The Costs of Suppressing Negative Emotions and Amplifying Positive Emotions During Parental Caregiving’, Personality & social psychology bulletin. Los Angeles, CA: SAGE Publications, 42(3), pp. 323–336. doi: 10.1177/0146167216629122.