By Lorin Jackson and Lucy Gleysteen
From PHN Issue 45, Winter 2021
Many people are not fully aware of the ways in which their negative thoughts impact them throughout their day and in their lives. One of the reasons we experience negative thoughts are our past (or current) experiences with trauma. In other words, trauma can impact the way that we see and understand ourselves.
Some people who have experienced trauma, oppression, and/or abuse at a young age develop what is called a “negative internal voice.” This voice (or these internal “tapes”) might reveal themselves in the form of feelings of worthlessness, self-hatred, or hopelessness. Examples of negative thoughts can include recurring thoughts like, “I’m stupid,” “I’m a horrible person,” or, “No one will ever want to be close to me.”
Some of these messages are things we’ve been told at different points in our lives, sometimes by parents, teachers, or people in our community. Sometimes, these messages come from people with power and privilege who feel a sense of superiority because of their identity. Sometimes these feelings emerge as a response to recognizing we might have hurt someone else or caused harm.
These feelings have an enormous impact on how we live our lives and relate to people. These thoughts impact our emotional wellbeing and overall sense of self worth. These thoughts can make it harder to seek support and comfort because of our feelings of worthlessness. Negative thoughts contribute to anxiety, depression, suicidality, and other mental health concerns.
This article is about how to tolerate and redirect distressing emotions. If these feelings have been growing over the course of a lifetime, this article can be a possible starting place for learning to grow an internal sense of self-compassion.
Noticing Emotions: One way that you can assist yourself and strengthen your self-care is by doing a check-in with yourself. You can ask yourself by doing what is called a self-assessment and try to identify what you are actually feeling.
It can be hard to put names to feelings, but our bodies can give us data to identify the type of emotion we’re experiencing. An example of this is when we feel a sinking feeling in our stomach when anxious or a light warm feeling when happy. Noticing what you feel and having the chance to pinpoint how to describe what you’re feeling is called naming. This process of identifying your emotions, naming them, and attempting to identify underlying causes or even reasons for what you feel can help make often overwhelming emotions less scary and more tolerable—like letting light enter where you saw only shadows before. Oftentimes, something has aggravated our fears and played off of what we didn’t know or could not immediately access. This causes more negative emotions that tend to build like items in a storage closet.
There are some additional questions you can ask yourself to self-regulate when you feel difficult or overwhelming emotions.
Self-Regulation: Self-regulation is the ability to manage emotions and behaviors in a positive way. It’s the ability to keep disruptive emotions and impulses under control.
One way that people manage to self-regulate is through engaging in coping skills. Coping skills are the things we do to feel better. It is important to note that there is a difference between healthy and unhealthy coping mechanisms. Coping skills are different for everyone, as well, but some examples of healthy coping skills include: talking to a friend, journaling, exercising, working on art, eating comforting food, taking a nap, or listening to music. Healthy coping skills help you self-regulate, while unhealthy coping skills can enact more harm and stall the healing process.
Reality Testing: If you’re stuck on a negative thought, you can ask these questions:
- Is it true? Is it absolutely true? If so, what is the evidence?
- How does this thought make me feel?
- What are kinder, more compassionate ways to view this situation?
- What would things be like if I didn’t hold this belief?
It can also be helpful to get an outside perspective if these questions feel hard to answer on your own.
Trying to Calm Your Body: This can be done through:
- deep breathing or sighing
- grounding exercises
- lengthening the spine, then holding that posture for at least 30 seconds
- placing your hand on your heart, holding it while noticing how it feels
- repeatedly tensing your body, then releasing it
- releasing tension in your jaw
- relaxing your arms and legs
Taking Space: Sometimes, we need a minute away from others to check in with ourselves. You can communicate with others that you need time alone. This can signal to others that you are carving out time for yourself and engaging in good self-care practices.
Mindfulness: Mindfulness is the ability to be aware of what we are feeling and thinking. There are different ways of engaging in mindfulness, including sitting in stillness/in quiet, meditation, yoga, journaling, focusing on breathing, and bringing awareness to all of your senses.
When It Feels Like Nothing Is Working
Sometimes no matter how hard we try, it can be challenging to overcome difficult emotions by ourselves. Despite our best efforts, sometimes the only way out of hard feelings and experiences is through them. In situations like these, one way to self-soothe is by reminding yourself that emotions are temporary and also survivable. Sometimes emotions feel impossible, but we have all survived difficult emotions and lived to see another day. Even when we thought we would not survive, we have.