I frequently work with people who join therapy groups saying that they experienced a major loss, such as the death of a loved one, and that they never felt that they gave themselves the time to grieve. Even if their loss occurred years ago, they often point at the grief, and having neglected to cope with it, as a major reason for why they are seeking treatment.
How did they spend their time if they weren’t grieving? Simple. They were “keeping it together.” Keeping up with work and taking as little time off as possible. Taking care of other people who were also struggling. Making sure none of their responsibilities fell through. Externally appearing as if things were normal. Sometimes it would go beyond keeping it together, and they would take on even more than they would before. Regardless of what “keeping it together” looked like, one thing was certain: They pushed down those feelings of grief every time it started to bubble up.
This is an easy reaction to fall into. And grief isn’t the only emotion we try to mask. It could be feelings of failure, worry, frustration, sadness, loneliness, overwhelm; the list goes on, but they can all spark the same thoughts that inspire “keeping it together”: Isn’t time the thing that will eventually make those negative feelings go away? If so, why not pass the time wearing a strong mask rather than appearing weak? Won’t giving into the negative feelings lead to a complete breakdown? Won’t it be worse to flake on legitimately important responsibilities?
Here are some important truths to acknowledge about “keeping it together” before you attempt it:
It takes intention, not just the passing of time, to get through rough times. Emotions need attention. Just because they sometimes evolve and change over time on their own doesn’t mean they don’t need to be nurtured. Think of them like pets. Yes, they have some level of independence and don’t necessarily need your constant, undivided attention, but owning a pet means work, especially if you want to foster a positive relationship with them.
Experiencing unpleasant emotions doesn’t make you weak. It makes you human. Whether it’s a major identifiable source of stress that does it, or an accumulation of smaller not-so-great experiences, there’s a reason we experience unpleasant emotions. Having them is completely normal, and everyone has them, even if they appear to be “keeping it together.”
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Trying to avoid emotions often makes things worse. Emotions and thoughts need validation. Quick demonstration: Spend the next 30 seconds letting your mind wander, but whatever you do, DO NOT think about bears, not once. No bears. Ready set go!
If you thought about bears, shame on you. Okay, maybe not; you’re actually confirming you have a human brain yet again. By telling ourselves things like, “Stop worrying, stop worrying, stop worrying…” we’re actually amplifying the worry, and extending the time it spends with us. Bottling emotions is when we start to lose control.
Attending to emotions doesn’t mean you have to put a full stop on your responsibilities. A coworker of mine had described those tough emotions as being similar to snowstorms. You can actually push through it. But that means you have to take certain precautions like put chains on your tires, take it slow, etc. It’s just those moments when the storm gets entirely too thick when you have to pull over and admit that you can go no further. And it’s okay (and preferable) to do that if you need to.
So, if you truly want to “keep it together” in rough times, it requires you to do the work, have self compassion, and avoid avoiding your emotions. Here are the 4 essential steps needed to accomplish this:
- Practice awareness of when unpleasant emotions hit. It may already be an effortless mental habit to stuff down unpleasant emotions as soon as they’re triggered, so building awareness may take practice. You can start by building awareness in hindsight. Think briefly about the last time you remember unpleasant feelings intensifying. What do you remember about what it was like? Where did you feel it in your body? What thoughts were running through your mind? If you could name the emotion(s), what would it be? The goal is to eventually be able to ask yourself these questions in the moment as emotions arise. In the meantime, activating this hindsight self-reflection as soon as you can will help to get you there.
- Exercise kind acknowledgement of unpleasant emotions. If you can tune into your emotions in the moment, the next step is to practice acceptance and willingness. This doesn’t mean you have to like the emotions you’re feeling, or give in and let them control you. This means asking yourself, “Can I hold this? Am I willing to experience this?” and answering ‘Yes’. Disallowing your emotions to be present leads to self judgement, and self invalidation. Trying to disallow an experience that’s happening (whether you want it to or not) only leads to amplifying those emotions, and beating yourself up. This never works. Another word used in the field to describe this step is “expansion.” Rather than having the feeling of tension and tightening when unpleasant emotions arise, envision yourself expanding and making room for it.
- Ask yourself what you need in that moment. The next step is to determine what is most effective for you, in terms of how you behave in any given situation, and also in terms of how you can maintain self compassion. Perhaps you’re in a situation that you can leave in order to take some alone time; if that’s what you feel you need, then do it. Perhaps you need to talk it out with a loved one. If you have the opportunity to do so, then take it. But, perhaps you’re in the middle of a business meeting and it’s truly better for you to “keep it together” and push through the meeting with your mask on. Continue to practice steps 1 and 2 (name your experience/emotion, allow it to be there), and then ask what you need in that moment to keep pushing forward; something that doesn’t involve speaking harshly to yourself. A deep breath? An inner mantra or affirmation? Distraction? It may be useful to reassure yourself that you’ll get to step #4 at a later time:
- Give emotions their time to run free. Let’s revisit the idea of a pet emotion that needs your attention. If you’re familiar with dogs, they tend to need their exercise, no matter the breed. If you constantly keep them hidden and cooped up indoors, you’ll see little signs of rebellion. Frequent barking. Intensified separation anxiety. Increased aggression. A chewed up shoe. A chewed up couch. He will make himself known until he gets his time. The solution is letting that pup run around outside and get his energy out. Ideally, this would be a regular thing. That dog will get designated time to release energy. Emotions are very similar. If you give them a designated period of time to run wild and free, they’ll stop freaking out so hard. The psychology field refers to this as ‘compartmentalization.’ Giving yourself a period of time dedicated to experiencing and expressing emotions. The period of time must have a clear beginning and end. Journaling can be very useful for this, although not the only way to do it. For example, when I started the grieving process after my mom died a few years ago, I tried to “keep it together” until I realized that my bottled up grief was coming out as intense irritability. What ended up being helpful was sitting down to look over some of her pictures, and videos so I could cry it out for a bit. When I closed my laptop, my grieving session was deemed over, and I found that it helped me feel a sense of release, and less under grief’s control. I was better able to attend to my relationships and responsibilities, even though grief was still in my life.
What strategies are you using to keep it together while you struggle with unpleasant emotions? Is there room for having more compassion for yourself, and nurturing for your emotions? Remember that self compassion includes compassion for emotions, even when they’re being a pain in the butt.