Emotional Strength

Could you ever imagine having a conversation with someone about their house, specifically that their house was on fire and would soon be burned completely to the ground?  Yet, after informing this person that their house was on fire, they responded with something along the lines of, “sorry, the idea of my house being on fire is just too distressing for me to deal with right now and I would appreciate it if you would stop upsetting me by telling me about it.”  How would you react to such a situation?  Presumably many people would laugh at such a scenario, however, what if I were to tell you that such a scenario is actually surprisingly common?  How many people do you know who actively avoid having a discussion about important issues that directly affect them?  Consider people who seek romantic partners that are no good for them, they are essentially walking into a house on fire yet when a friend brings this too their attention they respond not with gratitude but as though they were being personally attacked by this concern for their well-being.  How many teenagers put off homework and assignments until the last minute?  How many adults put off important chores and tasks until something breaks or they are forced to start paying the consequences?  How few of these people heed any advice offered to them?  All of this ties into an idea that I conceptualise as emotional strength.  I call it this, because it is like physical strength, if you go to a gym you can get much stronger than you naturally are simply by exercising your ability to handle strong emotions.

Emotional strength is the ability to sit with an emotion yet remain calm and focused.  How many people do you know who can not actually sit calmly to experience an emotion?  Consider the person who is uncomfortable talking about a subject, say nudity in films.  Whenever this topic comes up in conversation an emotionally weak person will start to sweat or blush, maybe even tremble.  They will often either go quiet or try to change the subject quickly.  If you ignore these cues and continue on with the conversation you run into the serious risk the other person will start thinking, “Can not this person see how uncomfortable I am talking about this topic?  Are they deliberately trying to terrorise/hurt me?”  If you are ever in this situation with someone, it is very important to reassure them that you are not attacking them and that you do care about their safety and well being.  However, consider the reaction an emotionally strong person might have.

An emotionally strong person in the same situation is still going to feel uncomfortable talking about nudity in films, but instead of avoiding the conversation, they are not frightened about how they feel or self-conscious about how other people might read their body language.  This allows them to remain calm and focused on the conversation.  With this calmness they can ask themselves questions: why do I feel uncomfortable talking about subjects like this?  What are my personal views on this topic?  They might decide they do not actually mind it, or they might decide they think it is horrendous.  Either conclusion is fine, but the important point is that they were able to remain calm in a crisis.

Now talking about nudity in films might not seem like a crisis to most people, but everyone has their own topics that make them feel unsafe or squeamish.  I for one find it difficult to watch nature documentaries when predators kill other animals.  Whereas as other people struggle with talking about relationships, feelings, homework, people they care about etc… However, being emotionally stronger is something that can benefit anyone regardless of their occupation or interests.  Being emotionally strong allows us to take on bigger longer challenges with greater long term rewards.  It allows us to have deeper and more meaningful relationships with other people.  It also allow us to resolve conflicts and arguments with other people calmly, rationally and productively.  Even if you were a hermit living in the wilderness, you might need to eat something unsavory just to survive, in which case having the emotional strength to endure this temporary hardship would still be valuable to you.

I think it is also important to realise that sometimes just exposing yourself to an emotionally unsettling event is not actually going to make one feel any better.  Consider if I were to force myself to watch nature documentaries about carnivores.  That alone is unlikely to make me feel stronger emotionally.  Other factors are important: my ability to articulate why it upsets me, my ability to think about it and my ability to express these thoughts and feelings.  Emotional strength is indeed a whole skill set of active processes, not just mashing oneself up against a grate until one’s skin is calloused all over.  It is entirely possible to be emotionally strong, yet still tender and gentle at the same time if that is how you tend to be naturally.

The bottom line is that emotions are an unavoidable fact of life.  The better we are at handling them, the easier and more exciting life becomes.

However, keep this in mind: feeling emotions can be a difficult task.  To see this, just observe young children trying to cope with sadness, loss, despair, anger, fear, hurt etc… These emotions completely overwhelm them. When adults see children feeling these emotions the temptation is to jump in there and tell them a joke, say that it is all going to be ok and to distract them with nice things or to tell them to stop crying and get over it.  This teaches children to avoid feelings, to avoid talking about feelings and to avoid experiencing any passion or intensity in life.  This attitude leads children to grow up into emotionally weak adults who avoid any serious challenges in life.  I am not saying be cruel to your children, but instead allow them to feel angry, hurt, sad, despair and fear if the situation is appropriate and then teach them the vocabulary to understand, think and talk about these feelings.

Remember, emotional strength requires exercise, this means when you are hurt, you do not go and distract yourself with food, sex, drugs and TV. Instead sit down with that hurt and feel it, or call a friend who is good at listening and talk to them about it.   Books, particularly older books, are good sources for finding new ways to look at and examine one’s feelings so maybe curl up with a Bronte or an Austen novel, while Shakespeare is for those who want to discover the full power of the English language to describe feeling.  If you are more practically minded then even most pop psychology books will provide interesting new ways to examine and express your emotional states.  At first, this will feel overwhelming and frightening, but over time with practice feeling emotions deeply will not feel nearly as stressful and scary as it does for your typical two year old.  Once you can do this you will be ready for whatever challenges life presents to you, including a highly competitive career, a serious intimate romance, building a home or even completing a marathon.

I hope you found this article worthwhile and interesting.  I am providing my advice freely at the moment, so I would appreciate it if you took the time to share my articles and this website with other people or write back to me with feedback and questions because I would like to make this my full time job one day.  Presently, I am writing another article about a specific issue with emotional strength called “emotional autoimmunity” which discusses people who do not simply reactively avoid uncomfortable feelings but take active steps to avoid feeling uncomfortable feelings like sadness, anger, grief, hurt and love.

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