Don’t tell me to be positive. Don’t tell me to love myself more. The more I try to “be present”, the more all-over-the-place my mind becomes. I just get lost in overthinking,’ said Alice in one of my coaching sessions.
When my father-in-law was diagnosed with an incurable illness earlier in the year, he felt fear, despair and… an overwhelming pressure to stay upbeat.
A challenge we all face in this new normal is the tsunami of people popping up all over social media and TV telling us to be positive. And on the basis of that very statement, we should all move forward with a big cheesy grin on our face as if everything is ‘just great’ in our world.
For most people that is so untrue.
The ideology of positivity given birth by our optimistic American cousins and raised into adulthood by the ‘personal growth’ industry, is now a global phenomenon. For many, including new age warriors, ‘being positive’ has become the new way of telling someone to ‘cheer up’.
Of course, we know we should be cheerful. Of course, we have heard it a million times before. And it’s downright annoying and useless to be told it again. As if we need to be told to feel better!
For me, there are too many therapists out there peddling ‘positive thinking’. Telling people that they not only have to look perfect, now they must think ‘perfectly’ too. Just be positive and things will be fine. I call it the ‘the tyranny of positivity’.
Managing your feelings takes more than just turning that frown upside down. I say this as a person whose business is motivation, mindset, change leadership and teamwork.
In my experience, at times everyone experiences grief, it spills over with joy or trembles with anger. And I say, ‘It’s okay to have a meltdown. In fact, sometimes it is what you should do. Just don’t get too comfortable there.’
Let’s be honest with ourselves, most of us suck at understanding our emotions:
• we don’t know where they come from or how long they will live inside us
• we don’t know why we have them or how they work
• we don’t know how to deal with them when they show up
• we don’t know what they mean or if they mean anything at all
• we don’t know if they’re good or bad, helpful or dangerous, something to be eliminated with drugs or meditated on during a meditation class
Right through this pandemic 74 percent – yes, 74 percent – of people I have worked with have told me their mental health has suffered; over a third have told me of relationship problems; 41 percent have told me they are struggling with their kids; whilst 30 percent judge themselves harshly for having bad emotions such as sadness, fear, anger or grief or criticise themselves for actively trying to push aside their feelings, refusing to acknowledge them.
What’s scary is I am seeing this in people who are being coached on leadership, change, mindset. I am sure it must be much worse for those who see people primarily for mental health problems. Many of us, when our mind starts to feel low, race into overthinking and we start trying to figure out a way to get out of the negative mood. Although doing this makes sense, this is exactly what keeps us stuck in that mood.
It’s like fighting with a giant spider’s web – the more you try to escape, the more trapped you get.
When emotions express themselves, negativity paints our dark clouds blue while positivity tries to paint storm clouds pink. One wallows in pain, the other denies it. Telling people to be positive, without understanding their challenges, empathising with their concerns and helping them frame their response, can elicit a very negative response. Even the great saints and mystics suffered from mental health issues; we are not abnormal. Having mixed up feelings, feeling glum, moody or being negative sometimes are all perfectly normal feelings.
Every saint has a past, every sinner a future.
We all have bad days. Of course, there is a difference between feeling down and dealing with major depression, but for many of us the former evolves into the latter because we compound our feelings with self-judgment. Yet, without experiencing the low emotions, we would not feel and appreciate the high emotions. Not many people like to hear this, but it’s nonetheless true that challenges strengthen what I loosely refer to as our ‘mind muscles’. Think of it as going to the gym and telling the trainer you want the ideal body, but you don’t want any stress on your muscles. The same principles apply to mind challenges. The tension of life evolves us.
I usually take people through a detailed programme, but here are some quick things to consider if you are feeling low.
1. Never be afraid to ask for help from a professional.
2. Check in with your body. Scan your body. Link any tensions and changes to the emotion you are feeling to understanding where and how different emotions affect you.
3. Physically remove the tension. If you feel tense in the arms, shake your arms; if you feel tight in your chest, stretch and expand or breathe deeply.
4. Breathe. Take five deep breaths. This will calm you and flood your body with oxygen. Do it for at least 60 seconds.
5. Talk to someone. Express your feelings to begin to resolve a situation. Vent to a friend or colleague rather than suppress emotions.
6. Disengage and re-engage emotions. Park a challenging emotion to deal with later, rather than just avoiding it.
7. Label your emotions. The part of the brain that can label or name an emotion is the same part that feels the emotion. Labelling is proven to reduce the intensity. Just by saying ‘I feel angry’ you actually feel less angry.
I am a huge advocate of meditation, not as a fix but as part of understanding and managing our emotional rollercoaster. Meditation can help us acknowledge and accept our emotions during hard times. It will also help to foster self-discovery by creating space to ask yourself, ‘what can I do about a problem in my life?’ Or if the problems seem too big to tackle, ‘how can I break them down into manageable pieces?’.
Emotional awareness and knowing how to manage your feelings can go a long way to support you at this hard time. It’s people who really fight against feeling their feelings that end up having a harder time.
Dr Maurice Duffy is Visiting Professor at Sunderland, consulting coach to NHS, Australian Cricket Team, Durham Cricket Club, international golfers, rugby players and many sports people, and also coaches many Senior FTSE 100 business leaders and politicians around the world. Find out more at mauriceduffy.com or follow on twitter @thebeaksquawks