Mental illness can bombard you with a lot of emotions. Many of them are understandable; a lot don’t seem to make any sense. People will be more empathetic in regard to some of your emotions than others. You will find some emotions easier to deal with than others. Some emotions can cause other emotions, such as when you feel irritated and then feel guilty for feeling irritated. It’s important to acknowledge all of your emotions and their effects.
You have the right to feel however you feel. Anyone who tells you otherwise may mean well, but they are not being helpful. You cannot control your emotions; you can only control how you express them. When people say “you’ve got to control your temper” they don’t mean that you should repress your anger, or deny its expression: they mean that you need to learn how to express your anger in safe, constructive ways. When I first read Feel the Fear and Do it Anyway by Susan Jeffers, it was a revelation. She pointed out that feeling fear is inevitable, but you can choose how to act in the face of fear. It made me realise that everybody feels fear – many to the same extent as I do – and that I didn’t need to remain paralysed by my fear.
Accepting my fear allowed me to start tackling my anxiety problems. It’s not a linear process and it’s not easy, but I’m now aware of a new possibility: that I can cope with my anxiety even if it doesn’t go away, that I can take action towards achieving my goals even if the anxiety is still present. In short, it helped me to accept my anxiety.
Accepting your emotions is a vital step in learning how to deal with them. Sometimes it will be more difficult to accept your emotions, such as when you feel sad on a happy occasion and don’t know why, but it will get easier with practice. Start by simply observing how you feel. I have found it useful to do this with an app called Moodtrack, but you might prefer to keep an “emotions journal” either digitally or on paper.
Try not to judge your emotions – just acknowledge them and note any factors that might be affecting your emotions. These could be external, such as a friend getting a new job when you are unemployed, or internal, like feeling exhausted because you didn’t sleep last night. You may begin to see patterns almost immediately, or it might take several weeks (or even months) before you can analyse your emotions and figure out the most common triggers. Again, don’t judge. Your patterns and triggers are unique. Having unusual reactions to certain things does not make your emotions less valid – nor does it make you a bad person.
Once you accept your emotions and their causes, you can begin to develop coping strategies. You may need professional help to do this (I was lucky enough to receive a year of drama therapy, which was amazing), so get help and support if you need it. Dealing with mental health issues is difficult and there is no shame in seeing a therapist, psychiatrist or counsellor. Even if you are not mentally ill, you may benefit from seeing a mental health professional or life coach. After all, if you had a physical injury you would see a physiotherapist without shame – you don’t have to cope on your own.
You might be surprised by which emotions you find hardest to accept. Often, these can be positive emotions like joy, excitement and contentment. I found it difficult to accept feeling happy, for example, when I was depressed. I would feel happy for a couple of hours when I was with my friends, then sink into a deep depression. I thought that I didn’t have the right to be happy and the brief happiness made the depression harder to bear because it proved that I was capable of feeling better. I repressed these happy periods a lot, because the contrast with how I felt the majority of the time was so painful. It was years before I learnt how to enjoy the happy periods amidst the sadness, frustration, fear, anger and numbness I felt over 90% of the time – but I got there in the end.
You can learn to accept all of your emotions, even ones which might feel dangerous or taboo. It can be a long, laborious and scary process, but it’s worth the effort.