Life happens. No matter how carefully we tread or how much we wish we could protect ourselves (and even if we put ourselves out there and live life to the fullest), we can’t anticipate every situation headed our way.
Sometimes bad things are going to happen, and we’ll be faced with the question of how to make the best of a bad situation.
We can either choose to view the uncertainty of life as nebulous and scary, or we can embrace the unknown as dynamic, spontaneous, and exciting. Life is an adventure, and even when things get tough, we can learn how to make the best of a bad situation and find the silver lining (or the lesson).
Big problems can be truly terrible. Our feelings of hurt, sorrow, anger, and fear are valid. We all experience life in different ways, and our feelings are part of the process.
We may be facing HUGE, monster-sized problems. These problems could be downright awful—illness, divorce, a job loss, betrayal, the death of a loved one. We may feel like our problems are barely insurmountable.
On the other hand, perhaps life’s moving along pretty smoothly, but we’ve run into a few bumps on the road. These problems and uncomfortable situations can crop up and start to build. One thing doesn’t go our way—we make a mistake at work, we have a falling out with a friend, we have an unexpected injury, we’ve gained a little extra weight. We may find ourselves suddenly feeling blah, frustrated, and annoyed.
Guess what? Feelings don’t go away.
The good news is that it’s totally okay. Feelings aren’t bad or wrong. Feelings are important. They make us human. They’re the way our brains react and process experiences. There are no bad feelings—not even anger, fear, sadness, or hurt. Yes, those feelings may “feel” pretty unpleasant and even awful.
But our feelings and emotions are extremely powerful tools. We can think of our emotions as milestones on our paths to self-discovery. They teach us about who we are, and when we tap into them, we can learn more about ourselves, our motivations, and our deepest yearnings.
Whatever hand life has dealt us may be difficult. Sometimes it might be something that was in no way our fault. But we can recognize how we feel about it, allow ourselves to experience the emotions, and realize that we will walk away from the experience stronger, more aware, and more in-tune with ourselves. We can set our intention to get through the situation and then use our feelings to guide us on our journey.
In addition to being unfair, life can also be uncomfortable. We’ve all been in situations that felt cringe-worthy, awkward, and even mortifying. Maybe we’ve said something accidentally offensive. Perhaps we’ve flubbed up a speech, made a huge mistake on a work project, or unintentionally hurt someone’s feelings.
What do we do when these situations arise? Well, first, our face usually turns red. Second, we think to ourselves, “Ugh, I’m so stupid. I just want to crawl in a hole right now and hide!”
Or what about when we receive some bad news? We might feel numb, disoriented, or confused. We might avoid “going there” with our emotions, try to shut down or escape. We might wonder if our feelings are normal, try to tamp them down, or tell ourselves to keep a stiff upper lip.
But here’s the reality—we all feel emotions. When we feel uncomfortable, we can try to see what happens when we lean into the discomfort. The next time we face a situation that’s painful, scary, or uncomfortable, we can go all in. Identify what we’re feeling, label it, but keep allowing it in. Bring on the emotion!
It may sound very strange, especially to those of us who live our lives carefully curating and cultivating our personas. We all want others to see us in a certain way. We may want to be noticed by others, but we probably don’t want to stand out in a way that would cause judgment or negative thoughts towards us.
But the deal is that most of these judgments exist inside our own heads. Most people don’t notice what we’re doing because they’re too busy hiding their emotions themselves. We put a version of ourselves out there that we think we should project—what we believe those around us want. The reality is that most likely, others don’t notice or care.
We can think about the last time we saw a friend cry, express fear, or even tell us they were angry with their spouse. What goes through our heads? Most of us try to empathize with our friends. We may reassure them. We may tell them that it’s okay; everyone makes mistakes. We’re sorry for their loss. We understand how they feel.
Chances are we didn’t look at our crying friend and think, “What a loser! Why is this person crying over a sick cat?”
So if we treat our friends with such understanding and compassion, why don’t we treat ourselves the same way? We’d tell our friends that their feelings were normal, valid, and understandable. Then we tell ourselves, “Don’t cry, you idiot! You’re embarrassing yourself!”
When we hold back our emotions, avoiding painful or uncomfortable situations, we miss out. We miss the full spectrum of the human experience. We miss opportunities to learn about ourselves and our inner strength. We miss the chance to flex our sadness muscles, our anger muscles, or our fear muscles. We miss an essential part of self-exploration. Think of athletes who stop using their muscles. They lose tone and coordination. They become slower and weaker, dulled, and unable to keep up.
Instead, we can become emotional athletes. We can take each opportunity to feel and really go for the gold.
The great part of this is that when we’re happy, we’ll be really blissed out! We’ll feel elation and joy!
Since we were kids, most of us learned to hide some of our emotions. Women, if we were upset, what do we hear? “Don’t get all emotional about it,” or “Sheesh, you’re so sensitive!”
For guys, the approach is a little different, but the message is still the same, “toughen up! Boys don’t cry!”
We can actually learn a lot about processing emotions when we observe kids. When kids feel emotions, they really feel them. They may cry, yell, or giggle like crazy. They don’t try to push emotions down—they let it out.
Once the moment has passed, what do kids do? They go back to the business of playing. They move forward. They’ve really felt their emotions, and they’ve expressed them. They aren’t holding them in or letting themselves get bogged down with their feelings. They get it out!
Neuroscientist Candace Pert’s research shows that our unexpressed emotions are lodged throughout the body and aren’t fully expressed until they reach consciousness. Through the body, up the spinal cord, and into the brain, raw emotion works to be expressed, moving up the neural access through the spinal cord. The cortex, however, often resists this expression. Why? Because when we harbor mistaken beliefs (e.g., It’s not manly to express fear) and rationalizations (e.g., If I get angry, people won’t like me) about emotion, we push our feelings down to be repressed rather than expressed. When the cortex responds this way, it is trying to prevent itself from being overloaded. This creates a physiological struggle since our emotions are trying to be expressed and integrated, yet the cortex is not allowing them to reach consciousness. But suppressing emotions is costly—not only does it deprive us of the power and gift of our emotions, but it is a high-intensity task that chews up limited prefrontal cortex energy and resources. It degrades our ability to recall information and limits our cognitive performance.
As kids, we’re constantly exposed to new situations and new stimuli. Summers feel endless. School days feel like centuries. Minor upsets can feel really big, and more significant changes can feel less impactful because the whole world is moving around us. As we get older, we’re exposed to fewer and fewer new situations. Our brain doesn’t need to process the information to make sense of it. When our brain doesn’t need to work so hard, we perceive time as moving “faster.”
Neuroscientist David Eagleman did studies at Baylor University on time perception. Participants were shown flashcards for a few seconds each. Many of the cards showed the same image of a shoe. Then, every so often, a card would pop up with a flower. Participants reported that the card with the flower was shown for much longer (3-4 seconds) than the shoe (1-2 seconds).
Here’s the kicker—there was no variation in the length of time participants were shown the cards. The flower appeared longer because it was different. Their brains had to take more time to process the flower. It had a “novelty effect.”
When we face uncertainty and difficult situations that feel “new,” they may also feel like they last a long time. We may feel like time slows or stops. We may wonder if we’ll ever feel better. So how can we make the best of this? How can we find the bright side and turn it around?
As we go through a painful experience, like divorce, there’s a tendency to wish we could move forward quickly. We may want to gloss over our feelings because they’re painful. We may wish we could go back to the familiar place we knew before. We may fear the changes ahead and wonder how we can cope.
Instead of wishing the situation would go away, we can reframe it as an opportunity—a chance to transform ourselves. A life change, no matter how painful or unfortunate, presents an opportunity for growth. We can allow ourselves to fully experience the spectrum of our emotions and view our situation through a new prism. We can explore our role and reactions that have led up to the point and think forward about who we really are and our new vision for ourselves.
For more ideas on embracing emotions and getting more out of life, visit Wright Now and explore our selection of courses and webinars. We offer resources to help you discover more about yourself, your relationships, and your career. So start living a life of MORE today!
The Wright Foundation for the Realization of Human Potential is a leadership institute located in Chicago, Illinois. Wright Foundation performative learning programs are integrated into the curriculum at Wright Graduate University.