Coping with difficult emotions


Coping with difficult emotions

“Every man has his secret sorrows which the world knows not, and often times we call a man cold when he is only sad.”  Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

What is your standard answer when someone asks you how are you?

Do you say:  ”Fine thank you, I’m good”?

Do you know that ”fine” isn’t a feeling, neither is ”good”? It is sometimes difficult to describe what we really feel because we sense emotions physically in our bodies. Some languages have limited words to describe emotions. We also tend to avoid saying what we really feel. Imagine answering someone who asks you how you are – ”Terrible, I am feeling suicidal today”. Will it trigger an avalanche of questions from the person or just silent shock? It is easier to suppress what we feel, to keep up appearances, because negative feelings are so uncomfortable that even we prefer not to acknowledge them.

“Mental pain is less dramatic than physical pain, but it is more common and also harder to bear. The frequent attempt to conceal mental pain increases the burden: it is easier to say “My tooth is aching” than to say “My heart is broken.”  C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain

The purpose of emotions

We are all born with the capacity to feel a full range of emotions. It can be compared to a box of crayons, that contains the full range of colours (positive & negative emotions) that you do a colourful drawing with or a box with monochrome colours (different hues of blue) that will lead to a much more sombre drawing.

Growing up, we learned about good and bad emotions from our parents. Boys were taught not to cry, but that it’s okay to get angry. For girls, it’s okay to display sadness or cry. Children were quickly reprimanded when they get too excited. In some families, very few emotions are allowed. The result is that we block emotions or allow ourselves to feel very few of them because we fear them. Sometimes we get stuck in emotions and struggle to move past them – for example during grief or heartbreak.

The reality is that feelings are our friends.  Their purpose is to convey messages to us. When you suffer from nausea, vomiting and diarrhoea, your body is conveying a message to you that you ate bad food. You need medical attention for that.  Emotions convey messages as well – they tell us if we are happy, or if we have been hurt. They help us to enjoy life to the full – regardless of whether it is a positive or negative emotion.

How can I make friends with my emotions?

Making friends with your emotions will help you to cope more easily with life.

  • Pay attention and become aware of what you are feeling.
  • Do introspection and determine where the feeling you have came from.
  • Give the feeling or emotion a name. (See the list at the bottom of the page)
  • Write the name down in your journal.
  • If it is the first time you experience a specific feeling, slow down and recognise it. Where did it come from? What triggered it?
  • Write down what the feeling caused you to experience in your body. We experience emotions physically. You can, for example, feel warm and tingly, cold and shivering, nauseous, tension around your throat and jaw, the tension in your neck muscles, find it difficult to breathe, experience stomach ache,  or want to hide and withdraw.
  • In neuroscientist Jill Bolte-Taylor’s memoir, My Stroke of Insight, she notes that the physiological lifespan of emotion in the body and brain is 90 seconds. The good news about this is that emotions and feelings are fleeting or temporary.  If you feel overwhelmed by emotions, just try to view them as leaves that are drifting past you on a lazy river. Just watch them and let them float past.

A useful tool to do emotional regulation is called “The Guesthouse Exercise.”

This is done by viewing your inner being as a ”guesthouse with emotions as guests” pitching up at your guesthouse. Picture each emotion approaching the reception desk to check-in as a guest. It is a way to view emotions objectively as if you are an outsider.

Questions you can ask ”the guest” are:

1) What is your name? (Name of emotion)

2) Where do you come from? (History of emotion)

3) Why are you here? (What does this emotion want to tell me?)

Let’s take for example you are feeling irritated. Then you regulate this emotion as follows:

1) What is your name?

My name is irritation.

2) Where do you come from?

I am irritated because I haven’t slept well and I feel I don’t have control over my reactions towards other people. I am also under pressure and am busy getting anxious because of that. To be quite honest, I’ve been feeling this way for quite a while – since my parents got divorced.

3) Why are you here?

I am here because I am not coping well. And I need to do something about it. That is the reason why I am acting out and feel so irritated and stressed out.

You may then decide whether you want to give this emotion (guest) a room or whether you are going to show him the door. Is this a pleasant emotion you are prepared to live with or is this emotion going to be tough to live with?

In the case of the last example, you can decide not to give ”irritation” a room, as it is a difficult emotion to live with. To show it the way, you have to tell this guest why you are not giving him a room. “Irritation, I can’t give you a room as you are too destructive. I now know why you are here and I know what to do with the reason for your coming.”

It helps to keep a journal on the emotions you become aware of. Remember to give the emotion a name. Try to do this exercise with every emotion  – good or bad. It helps you to become more self-aware. There is a list of emotions at the end of this article.


If you would like more help to manage emotions, you can chat with a counsellor on  LIVE CHAT.

The chat is text-based and you may remain anonymous.

List of emotions


SECURE: safe, calm, comfortable, relaxed, relieved, trusting
LOVING: caring, warm, compassionate, affectionate, tender, friendly
ENGAGED: energetic, involved, interested, absorbed, fascinated
HAPPY: joyful, glad, pleased, delighted, amused, jubilant
CONFIDENT: optimistic, strong, empowered, hopeful, encouraged
GRATEFUL: appreciative, thankful, touched, satisfied, fulfilled
ELATED: thrilled, exhilarated, enchanted, exuberant, ecstatic
REFRESHED: renewed, restored, revived, invigorated, rejuvenated
SURPRISED: amazed, astonished, dazzled
PEACEFUL: calm, centred, serene, tranquil, still, blissful, mellow


ANGRY: annoyed, irritated, upset, furious, enraged, resentful
SAD: depressed, discouraged, unhappy, disheartened, despair
SCARED: fearful, frightened, insecure, terrified, overwhelmed
UNEASY: agitated, restless, uncomfortable, unsettled
FRUSTRATED: aggravated, annoyed, exasperated, impatient, irritated
HATE: contempt, disgust, repulsed, enraged, animosity
CONFUSED: puzzled, torn, perplexed, ambivalent, discombobulated
WARY: leery, mistrustful, suspicious, apprehensive, anxious, guarded
VULNERABLE: sensitive, fragile, helpless, reserved, guarded
ALONE: disconnected, cold, alienated, withdrawn distant, apathetic
FATIGUE: depleted, beat, exhausted, cranky, lethargic, tired, weary
GUILTY: liable, regret, remorse, awful, bad, culpable
EMBARRASSED: shocked, ashamed, flustered, self-conscious
PAIN: hurt, agony, despair, devastated, alone, lost, miserable, bitter
ALONE: disconnected, cold, alienated, withdrawn distant, apathetic
FATIGUE: depleted, beat, exhausted, cranky, lethargic, tired, weary
GUILTY: liable, regret, remorse, awful, bad, culpable
EMBARRASSED: shocked, ashamed, flustered, self-conscious
PAIN: hurt, agony, despair, devastated, alone, lost, miserable, bitter


An Atlas Of The Human Body That Maps Where We Feel Emotions

How Do Emotions Work?



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