When your mother-in-law passive-aggressively notes that your flower beds are more mulch than magic, you feel belittled, yet you force a smile. After all, you’ve always believed pushing down negative emotions keeps you in control. But this facade hides a tumultuous inner world, and the more you try to suppress it, the more it churns, creating a storm of stress and self-doubt.
“We live in an emotion-phobic society, so we learn to run away from complex feelings,” says psychoanalyst Hilary Jacobs Hendel, author of It’s Not Always Depression (Buy from Amazon, $14.43). And women bear an extra burden of so-called “taboo” emotions: “We’re told that we’re ‘irrational’ or ‘out of control,’ especially if we get angry, leading us to stif le such feelings from an early age.” But that causes more harm than good: “Negative emotions aren’t ‘negative’ at all — they’re important signals, telling us to pay attention to our needs.”
Getting curious about these signals is the fastest way to learn from them, assures June Price Tangney, PhD, who studies “moral” emotions, like shame and guilt. “For example, we did a study asking people how a recent episode of anger turned out — and we found that respectfully communicating it, rather than tamping it down, strengthened their relationships.” Indeed, giving ourselves permission to feel what arises ultimately leads to greater happiness.
This emotional health quiz offers simple tips to process difficult feelings and discover more hope, resilience, and self-confidence!
Angry? Listen to its ‘secret message’.
After your uncle talks over you at dinner, you feel equal parts powerless and peeved. Yet you’re sure you’re overreacting. “Women are so stigmatized for showing anger, we tend to judge ourselves for it,” says Tangney. “But it means something central to our values is threatened — we need to heed it.”
Rather than silence anger, listen to how it manifests in your body. “Bring awareness to the tingling in your arms or tightness in your chest,” urges Hendel, who says allowing yourself to feel these sensations is important, because anger is often in a tug-of-war with shame: “While shame wants us to push down rage, our nervous system is wired to let it out — anger needs release.” Noticing how it feels validates your experience so it no longer festers. “Ask yourself what other emotions lurk beneath it — hurt, sadness? Put it into words, like, ‘I’m angry because X made me feel small.’” Giving voice to it helps your rational brain come online and problem-solve by creating a plan to protect your sense of what’s right in the future.
Envious? Fast forward 5 years.
While on Facebook, you spot a photo of a friend in front of her dream home. Almost as soon as you feel envy, you suppress it. “As women, we’re also taught to slap down our desires,” says Karla McLaren, author of The Language of Emotions (Buy from Amazon, $12.29). “And when we feel envy, instead of saying, ‘It’s okay that I’d like X,’ we deny ourselves the right to want something.”
Let envy paint a picture of your future self, urges Susan MacKenty Brady, co-author of Arrive and Thrive (Buy from Amazon, $22.99). “Envision yourself five years from now — what’s a regret that you can start to change?” If we let it, envy can help us build our future, adds McLaren. “When I envied a friend with a great house and garden, I asked myself, ‘What’s a small way I can have that?’” McLaren cut out pictures of flowers and created a vision board, until one day she had her own house and garden. “Envy ebbs as soon as you give yourself permission to desire more.”
Ashamed? Let guilt guide you to joy.
You’re babysitting your grandson, whom you love to the moon and back. But when he refuses to listen, you kind of want to send him to the moon — and you snap at him. Instead of reassuring yourself that we all lose our temper sometimes, you berate yourself for being a bad grandmother. Says Tangney, “Shame cuts to the core of who we are, making us feel defective.”
To free yourself of shame, shift into its more useful cousin: guilt. “Shame interferes with empathy, while guilt facilitates it, because it’s about what we did, not who we are, motivating us to find solutions that bring us closer to others,” says Tangney. In other words, guilt is a stepping-stone that leads to more positive emotions.
All it takes is a simple mental reframe: While shame wants us to withdraw, guilt propels us forward by helping us get curious: What were the consequences of what happened? Is there something you can do differently next time? “There’s no shame in feeling a little guilty from time to time — it often leads us to be our best self.”
Disappointed? Release, relax, and rejuvenate.
Though you and a friend have been drifting apart, it’s still a blow when you finally lose touch. Well, worse things have happened, you think, telling yourself to keep upbeat. “There’s a strong urge, especially among women, to put on a ‘happy mask,’ and it’s called the ‘toxic positivity bias,’” explains McLaren. “But the more we suppress sadness, the heavier it becomes.”
The best way to overcome hurt is to let it become grief, and let grief become hope. “Sadness eventually brings us rejuvenation,” says McLaren. “Yet instead of leaning into grief, we often do the opposite and become rigid, forcing our tears back and pressing forward.” Ask yourself what needs to be released, she urges. “Is it regret over something you did or didn’t do? Is it expectations you had for someone who didn’t meet them?” Whatever underlies your sadness, say it, then let yourself relax, be it by taking a walk or enjoying a cup of tea. “When we relax, the hurt we tried to push down often naturally surfaces in a way that allows us to meet it.” As you accept that sadness isn’t a bad word, your heart will open to the genuine gratitude that will help you move on stronger and happier.
A version of this article originally appeared in our print magazine, First For Women.
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