Befriending your emotions

This post was inspired by the wonderful Emmy Van Deurzen – a philosopher, artist and existential psychotherapist who I had the benefit of hearing talk at an event put on by the Brighton Therapy Partnership last year. You can watch her lecture to the Weekend University on ‘Managing your Emotions’ if you’d like to hear more!

Emotions are not just extreme responses to special situations. They are actually essential daily messages

Emmy Van Deurzen

People often come to counselling for reasons such as wanting to reduce their anxiety, prevent their angry outbursts or ‘get rid’ of their depression. Whilst these are understandable goals, they are framed in a way that implies that our emotions are to be avoided, dampened or dismissed. The main message that I took from Emmy’s talk, and that I want to pass on to you, is that all of your emotions are valid and important. There are no good or bad emotions. Consider befriending your emotions, tune in, rather than block out.  

Emmy describes emotions as signposts, daily messages, proof that we are alive, that our body, brain and nervous system are working and reacting to the world around us and to our needs as human beings. The complexity and variety of our emotions is what makes us human and our emotions have something to tell us. In this way, counselling can be an opportunity for growth and learning, time each week to work on understanding what drives your emotions and what messages they have for you.

We can learn to listen to our emotions, feel their intensity, let it pass and then exercise curiosity rather than judgement. We might ask: What message is behind this emotion? What task do I need to take on? What is really going on here? What do I need right now?

Many of us have never learned how to pay attention to our internal world and we may also have internalised the stigma around asking for help or expressing our so called ‘negative’ emotions. You might believe that you should be able to cope better, that you shouldn’t be struggling or that other people are worse off so you shouldn’t be feeling sad. These mindsets are both unhelpful and unrealistic. It also happens that reaching out for help can provide the very thing we are often seeking – authentic connection to others,  one of our basic human needs. If you feel you have a version of yourself that you try to show to the world and a ‘real’ version inside then over time this will become exhausting. 

How do I tune in to my emotions?

Facing your emotions can be scary for a number of reasons. It can often seem less painful to look the other way, minimise them, or discount them entirely, so that in the short term at least, you don’t have to deal with them and the discomfort and pain this might entail. You may have learnt to do this to survive growing up, perhaps certain emotions were frowned upon in your family or you needed to switch your emotions off in order to cope with your environment. Whatever the reason, as an adult, you may find that your emotions come in intense waves when you can no longer hold them at bay or you may feel disconnected from the world around you. 

In the same way that it is necessary for us to attend to our physical selves (we must eat, sleep and exercise to avoid illness), it is also necessary for us to attend to our emotional world so that we can be mentally well. When we let ourselves feel, we are being our authentic selves, this may be uncomfortable at times but being true to ourselves also feels good. The first step is to slow yourself down and name what you are feeling.

Emotions provide both the fire and the light inside us. We need to learn to tend the fire.

Emmy Van Deurzen

Take envy for example, often seen as an ugly, unwelcome emotion. We may feel ashamed to admit our envious feelings, we might put ourselves down for feeling envy. Emmy points out in her talk that in fact, envy reflects our aspirations and our personal values. Envy can lead us to energetic motivation in our own lives. What are we working towards and what do we want to achieve? Embrace your envy, be curious about it, accept it and work out what it has to tell you. Take action. 

Similarly with anger, this has the potential to be an explosive and impulsive emotion. Anger often comes with a lot of energy that we need to learn to contain and then channel into a healthy expression of our resentment, disappointment or frustration. You might want to consider what is going on in your life that is resulting in these feelings? Your anger, like a siren, it’s telling you that something isn’t okay about your current situation. Perhaps someone is violating your boundaries, disrespecting your values, taking advantage of your good nature – the task then is to consider what you need to change in order to tend to your anger. 

Finally, one of the most common feelings that we fight against is anxiety. We can become consumed by worry and fear: What will they think of me? Will I get it right? What if I fail? The task with anxiety is to welcome the rising energy within, the butterflies in your stomach, the racing heart and to find the courage to keep going. Your threat response system is working which is a good thing! You may however, need to remind your brain that in fact you have the tools to cope. Suppressing your anxiety, or trying to switch it off, will only intensify it. Instead, learn to trust your ability to handle unexpected situations and see each one as a chance to grow, to improve and to expand your comfort zone. Take responsibility only for yourself and let everyone else take care of themselves. You deserve to live a full life, not one where you shy away from the action or stifle your potential.

We cannot expect ourselves to know how to handle every situation the first time around and remain calm. This knowledge and confidence only comes with experience and the courage to work with our emotions rather than against them. 

On a practical level, it also helps to find safe places and people to go to and recover from the adrenaline after a difficult experience. I like to run or walk in nature or reflect on my experience with a trusted friend or colleague. A little reassurance can be helpful and a reminder that we are loved and respected in all our messiness.

Get used to noticing your emotions, naming them and being curious about what’s driving them. Whatever you do, don’t judge yourself badly for feeling something. Feeling is what makes you human.

How can I stop over-thinking everything?

Your very best and most detailed worrying can’t change the past or the future no matter how hard you try. Instead, you can take control of the here and now; you deserve to live a less stressful life.

If you’re reading this you’re already working towards managing your over-thinking habits, and a habit is exactly what this is. We all fall into patterns in the way we think and respond to life. You’ve recognised over-thinking as an issue and this awareness is your key to change. You’re already half-way there.

To begin with it may help to ask yourself, how much of my day do I spend with my internal monologue and worries? And, how does this benefit me, if at all? You could keep a diary for a week and see what you notice – What do you spend most of your day thinking about? How much time and energy does this thinking take up? What does all the over-thinking achieve? 

If you have noticed that over-thinking and dwelling on past or future events takes up a lot of your mental energy, it may be time to practice focusing your attention outside of yourself.

What does that really mean? The image below is taken from Catherine Lepange’s book Thin Slices of Anxiety: Observations and Advice to Ease a Worried Mind and it represents the idea.


I’m not too keen on the ‘normal person’ tag in the image as there really is no such thing but a more outward focused mind may represent a more mentally healthy person, with a more balanced view of the world. Of course, some level of introspection isn’t a bad thing, it’s how we learn about what makes us tick and develop as people. It’s when that over-thinking persists that we see problems such as panic attacks, lack of sleep or avoidance of social situations.

The idea of looking outwards is about adjusting your focus; what might you be doing with friends or for your community, who might you be spending time with, what might you be feeling if you spent less time caught up in your own thoughts. The idea can be liberating, if you allow yourself to let go. Your very best and most detailed worrying can’t change the past or the future no matter how hard you try. Instead, you can take control over the here and now. You deserve to live a less stressful life.

So how do you let go of the worrying?

Kicking any sort of habit can be really hard and over-thinking is no exception. Often over-thinking can act as a safety net, for example, you may believe that if you think something through enough then you’ll be prepared for all eventualities, or you’ll actually feel less anxious.

Consider for a moment then, what the worry and stress is doing to your body. You may find you get frequent tummy upsets, tension in your neck or back or you always pick up the cold that’s going around. As we generate stress through worry, our physical health can suffer too.

Finding your motivation to let go is really important. You need to set your intention and be willing to  commit, whether that’s for your general health and wellbeing, your values as a person and who you want to be or simply to make life a little more bearable.

Write it down. What is your motivation to stop over-thinking?

post it motivation

Once you find your motivation the next step is to consider what you’re actually willing to do. You’ll need to take action; this won’t magically go away on its own. It’s all very well reading a nice blog but it’s very easy to discard and scroll on to the next thing you aren’t going to do! My challenge to you is to try to start one new habit today.

Re-focus your attention.

Imagine a volume dial in your mind. Next time the over-thinking kicks in, visualise the image of turning the volume down inside your mind, then pro-actively do something else to re-focus your attention – put the radio on, call a friend, do ten star jumps – whatever works for you. Focus your energy outwards instead of inwards.

Take time out to practice relaxation.

Yoga and meditation are often recommended for a busy mind and can be a huge challenge at first as they push you to slow down, focus on your breath and create stillness. For meditation try the Headspace app and for yoga try Yoga with Adriene – free videos you can do at home specifically designed to help you manage depression, anxiety, self-doubt, stress and more. Or, join a local class, push yourself to take one action today.

Visualise a day in the life of you, without excessive worry.

Take a piece of paper and draw yourself in the middle. From there put down everything that could be different if you let go of some of your over-thinking. It might be more time doing things you enjoy, more time for yourself, increased freedom to say ‘yes’ to things, better sleep, better connections with friends. How would you feel and what would you be doing differently? Stick this picture up on your fridge or somewhere you will see it every day. Being able to visualise a better future is another important step.

Do one thing this week that is just for you.

Who are you without worrying? You may have forgotten who you really are, what you care about, what you want to do with your time. Worrying has the ability to rob us of the here and now by keeping us in the past or in the future. Don’t miss out on living for the moment – watch the sunset, go and see a film on your own, go to a cafe and read a book for half an hour, get in touch with something that you enjoy.

Put yourself first.

But isn’t that selfish? No. No it isn’t. You matter and you need to allow yourself to come first sometimes. If you worry about other people’s expectations or judgements too much this can get in the way of your desired change. Carl Rogers called these restrictions our ‘conditions of worth’, the unwritten rules we learn growing up. For example, ‘I’m only successful if I am busy all the time’, I’m only loved if I take care of everyone’, ‘I’m only likeable if I’m outgoing’, ‘I’m only loved if I’m interesting and clever’, ‘I’m only okay if I always get things right’, ‘I’m only accepted when I’m life and soul of the party’.

Have a go at identifying your own conditions of worth and consider if you want these to hold you down any longer. Drop the perfectionism and begin to listen to your own needs.

This all sounds great but…

This sort of self-development can be daunting, painful, hard work. You’ll need to dig deep to break this habit. However, making changes can also be hugely rewarding as you begin to take back control of your time, energy and attention. You’ll relapse into old habits now and then and that’s okay. Notice it, give yourself a break, and then do something about it. You won’t be starting from scratch this time.

Having someone to support you with making changes can also help to provide the structure and commitment you need to bring about the change you desire. You might tell a friend or family member what you’re trying to do and ask for their support, get them to call you out when they notice you retreating into your own head, panicking or being quieter than usual.

Counselling can also provide a safe space to explore what’s behind your over-thinking and support you to make change. If you’re interested to find out more please get in touch.  Good luck!

Talking to your friends and family

Behind every dismissive ‘I’m fine thanks’, lies the internal emotional world of a complex human being. Sadness, fear, loneliness and pain are all part of being human; you’re not alone in your struggles. By bringing them out into the open you can not only find relief, but you can also show others that they’re okay to do the same. The question is, how do you do it?

Have you ever opened up to a friend or family member with a problem, hoping for a listening ear, a hug or the chance to vent? Did you receive advice you didn’t ask for, worse still a judgement, or an ‘I told you so!’, a ‘Pull yourself together!’ or even a ‘Come on now, all you need to do is…’.

Often these reactions are well-intentioned, but they can also be extremely annoying or even hurtful, leaving you feeling frustrated, patronised or misunderstood; you may even feel guilt from offloading and it can be off-putting to open up when we can’t be sure of the response we’ll get.

So what’s going on here?

The thing is, when we see people we care about suffering it’s only natural to want to help them solve their problems; we may want to take away their stress or sadness somehow, or we might jump to feeling angry with them or whatever is behind their distress. We can often react quickly, based on our own views, and we do all of this before they have even finished what they want to say. This can result in shutting down a conversation even if we didn’t intend to.

For example, someone in the midst of a break up is unlikely to benefit from a blunt, ‘Plenty more fish in the sea, let’s get you on tinder’ response.  Or a student struggling to choose between universities doesn’t need to be told ‘Well if you can’t make this decision how on earth are you going to manage on your own when you get there.’.

The good news is that we can interrupt this unhelpful dynamic; we can find the courage to speak up and learn the skills to set up a conversation that meets our needs. Or, as listeners, we can learn to really help our loved ones.

In the counselling room I often help clients to play out difficult conversations. This can be a great way to work out what you really want to say, prepare for the responses you might get and find the confidence to start those difficult conversations in a more thoughtful way.

Setting up a conversation…

Two people drinking coffee

Step 1: Choose your listener

Who you choose to seek support from can be really important. Sometimes our loved ones can seem too close to the situation to remain impartial. You may worry about burdening others with your problems or being judged by them. These fears are common, and they are manageable. Showing your vulnerability takes courage and strength; the opposite of weakness. It’s about being real rather than putting on a brave face and trying to cope on your own. There’s no avoiding the risk you take in opening up, but you can manage that risk by choosing someone you trust. It’s important to be absolutely clear about what you need from them and more important perhaps, to tell them what you don’t need!

If you don’t feel you have anyone you trust enough to talk to them you may want to consider counselling as an option. You can also speak to a trained listener anytime of day or night by contacting Samaritans

Step 2: Think about the location and timing

Where and when are you going to have this conversation? Avoid places full of interruptions or places where you might be overheard. Try taking a walk together or finding a quiet time with a cuppa. In fact, research shows that walking is good for the brain. Not only that, but many people find the act of walking an excellent stress reliever in itself, and even better to have someone with you. I don’t know about you but when I’m walking I often find my thoughts begin to take better shape. Car journeys can work well too. The key here is to ensure you have the space and time you need, in a place that you feel comfortable, and make sure you both put your phones away.

Step 3: Don’t be afraid to put some structure in place

If you’re the one asking for help, avoid blurting out the problem with no prior warning. You’ll take the other person by surprise and you’re way less likely to get what you need. Instead try to initiate the conversation calmly at a time that suits you both.

Here are a few useful phrases to get you started:

‘I’ve been meaning to talk to you about something that’s not easy for me. Do you have some time in the next day or two to have a chat?’

I’ve got something weighing on my mind that I need to offload. I don’t want advice or even your opinion really, just some space to get this off my chest, would that be okay?’

If you’re helping someone else, learn to be a good listener. Clarify what you have heard, summarise it back to them and then, only if they ask, help them to come up with solutions or offer your opinion. Focus on them.

Clarify: Make sure you know what this person wants:

Are you looking for advice or would you rather I just listen?’ ‘Can I just check I have understood correctly?

Summarise: Let them tell their story. Resist the urge to take control with your own solutions and don’t weigh in with your opinions or judgements. Instead, communicate your understanding of their situation:

So, it sounds like you’re really angry with your boss and you’re struggling to cope with the stress, and you don’t know what to do.’

This helps the other person feel genuinely heard and understood, this can be invaluable!

Ask questions: Put them in the driving seat.

‘What do you think your options are here?’ ‘Would you like me to help you come up with some solutions or do you just want a hug?’

All of these suggestions should give both sides the chance to slow down, make time for each other and generate more supportive conversations. Give it a try and let me know in the comments how you get on. What might a half hour walk once a week with a good friend, partner or family member do for your wellbeing?

Remember, behind every dismissive ‘I’m fine thanks’, lies the internal emotional world of a complex human being. Sadness, fear, loneliness and pain are all part of being human; you’re not alone in your struggles. By bringing them out into the open you can not only find relief, but you can also show others they’re okay to do the same. You might be surprised with the connections you make.

Can you take a compliment?

If you have low self-esteem you may spend a lot of time thinking ‘I’m not okay’ – not skinny enough, not clever enough, not cool enough, not interesting enough, not happy enough, not sexy enough, not fun enough. This sort of thinking, if left unchecked, can lead to feelings of anxiety, insecurity, shame and depression. It’s time to start taking positive feedback on board.

Taking a compliment sounds like a simple thing to do. Someone says something positive about you, you say ‘thank you very much’ and walk away with a fuzzy feeling inside. In reality though, many of us play down our abilities, we say to ourselves:

‘They’re just being polite.
‘They have to say that, they’re my friend.
I wasn’t that good, other people are much better than me.’

Many of us feel uncomfortable accepting compliments through fear of seeming boastful or arrogant and we respond by saying things like:

‘Oh, this old thing, it’s nothing special!’
‘Thanks but it wasn’t really all down to me.’

You may have been on the other side too, as the compliment giver, you can be left feeling frustrated or wondering why you bothered.

The key to all this can often be found in low self-esteem. You may find it hard to recognise anything truly worthwhile about yourself. Or, if you can, these qualities are immediately cancelled out by all the bad stuff which you give much more attention to!

You may focus on feeling inadequate in some way. Or you may feel you’re coasting along just well enough that no one has quite noticed how afraid and lacking in confidence you really are. You often think that if they knew the ‘real you’ they wouldn’t pay you those compliments. You may also compare yourself to others or to the person you feel you ‘should’ be. This internal struggle can be absolutely exhausting and leave you feeling miserable and uncomfortable in yourself. 

How to take a compliment

The following steps can help you to move forward and accept that there may be some truth in the way other people see you and the positive things they say about you.

Step 1: Stop comparing!

These seemingly sorted people you see all around you, on instagram, at work, they aren’t you. They haven’t lived in your body, haven’t had the same life experiences that you have had, and so it’s not an ‘apples with apples’ fair comparison. So stop it. Enough now.

Instead, slow down the process. When you notice yourself comparing in a negative way, rather than speeding ahead to miserable town, allow yourself a choice – you can proceed down that negative spiral, or, you can do something different.

The trick here is in the doing – stand up, take a deep breath, shake your body, go outside, call a friend, make a cup of tea, put some music on, change your energy somehow. When you’re stuck, the only way out is to move and sometimes this means quite literally moving your body. 

Step 2: Say thank you!

Every time you receive a compliment, no matter your mood, notice your initial reaction but challenge yourself to say a genuine thank you. Then, when you have a moment, write it down for later, read it, see it.

Absorb it. Let it in.

The compliment-giver did it for a reason; look for the evidence that backs it up rather than the evidence against it. You may feel really uncomfortable doing this at first and that’s normal, just keep at it. 

Say Thank You

Step 3: Be open and willing to change the way you think.

Perhaps this one should come first! Imagine yourself with improved self-esteem. How do you feel and what are you doing differently? Until you can visualise your desired change it’s unlikely that the other steps will have the desired effect. Making any change requires a decision to do so and a commitment to see it through. Lapsing back into old thinking habits is also part of the process but the important thing is to notice what you’re doing.

Eric Berne, the founder of Transactional Analysis, gives us a simple way of looking at all of this. He believed that we’re all born ‘okay’: good and worthy. Through our life experiences, our sense of ‘okayness’ can become diminished (or elevated, but that’s a whole other blog post!). If you have low self-esteem you may spend a lot of time thinking ‘I’m not okay’ – not skinny enough, not clever enough, not cool enough, not interesting enough, not happy enough, not sexy enough, not fun enough. This sort of thinking, if left unchecked, can lead to feelings of anxiety, insecurity, shame and depression.

Counselling can help you to understand where these beliefs have come from and support you to make a shift in the view you have of yourself. Remember, you’re in charge of you, you’re enough as you are, nobody has it all figured out and you have untapped potential waiting to be unleashed. Take the compliment 😉


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