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Have you ever reflected on a difficult time and wished that you could go back and tell yourself that you will get through it, no matter how impossible it might feel? That these periods of adversity, and surviving these times, can lead to a greater understanding of yourself, your strength and your resilience?
It’s often only after we’ve been through something that we’re able to contextualise it and view it from a different perspective, one that has the benefit of hindsight; ‘Another year older, another year wiser’, as the proverb goes. Well, we’ve done our research into behaviours we can nurture every single day to help change the way in which we relate to and even celebrate our past, present and future. You can thank us later!
It’s okay to not be okay
If there’s one thing our younger selves could do with hearing, it’s that there will be periods where we feel low, and that’s okay.
We spoke to Clinical Psychologist Dr. Sarah Powell-Jones about the importance of accepting our emotions and the experiences that trigger them, and not just the ones that make us feel good. We need the full spectrum of emotions to survive, Sarah explains, referring to the positive function of emotions like anger in eliciting vital social change, anxiety in keeping us safe, and grief and loss signalling our meaningful connection with those we love. A study conducted by researchers Jonathan M. Adler and Hal E. Hershfield demonstrated a strong correlation between mixed emotional experience and psychological welfare, with the participants who reported feeling both positive and negative emotions demonstrating an improvement in wellbeing over those who didn’t.
The art of letting go (and why it’s not as simple as it sounds)
The message seems to be that we should try to allow ourselves to feel all the feels. But, with painful memories and emotions, this is easier said than done. Nobody likes feeling upset or stressed, and these memories and experiences can be anxiety-provoking. So, how can we practise this in a way that will promote better mental health?
Sarah explains that it’s all about accepting our emotions: “Emotions are like little signals generated by the body to let us know that we’re feeling a certain way. So-called negative feelings are usually a signal of an unmet need.” For example, if you’re feeling sad, it might be that you’re craving connection or comfort. Frustration can be a signal that you seek validation or a need to be heard. “Notice an emotion and be curious about it. Ask yourself what the feeling is, what it’s telling you and how you can try and fulfil that need,” Sarah says. If you’re struggling to identify how you’re feeling, Sarah recommends checking out Plutchik’s Wheel of Emotions.
This notion of acceptance is the basis of mindfulness, which is very much at the core of acceptance and commitment therapy. “We talk about letting go, but what’s really important is letting go of the struggle to let go,” says Sarah. This involves an acceptance of the experiences that have happened to us and the emotions they trigger. In time, we will come to regard them with a healthy curiosity and see them as an opportunity to grow and learn.
But, in a culture where we’re often encouraged to ‘put on a brave face’, this can be really challenging. There is the temptation to turn our back on any negative emotions and the experiences that trigger them in the hope that they’ll go away. This is actually counterproductive; “The more we try to avoid our emotions, the more they’ll manifest themselves,” attests Sarah. It’s a phenomenon known as Ironic Process Theory, or The White Bear Effect, first coined by Fyodor Dostoevsky, who said: “Try to pose for yourself this task: not to think of a polar bear, and you will see that the cursed thing will come to mind every minute.” (Yes, all we can think about is a big white polar bear now too!)
Putting pen to paper
Much of Sarah’s practice in nurturing acceptance over avoidance is the utilisation of compassion-focussed therapy. An exercise she finds incredibly fruitful is letter-writing, where she encourages her clients to write a letter to themselves. “We have lots of different selves,”’ she explains, “there’s a younger self, a vulnerable self, a professional self, a not-good-enough self…the list goes on.” The way we speak to our younger self is especially important and it’s crucial that this is done with kindness and compassion. Writing a letter to our past self can promote healing and help us gain clarity, in turn impacting how we face present-day hardships.
Sarah has shared her top tips on how we can all have a go and reap the rewards:
- Be compassionate: This is no place for criticism.
- Be empathic: Validate your experiences and the emotions they triggered.
- Be courageous: You have more strength and wisdom than you did back then. You have survived a lot and you can stand up for your younger self now.
So grab your pen and paper and get started on one of the most important letters you’ll ever write. We’ll be with you every step of the way! For helpful resources and information, visit https://www.compassionatemind.co.uk/