Ask A Counselor: How do I Cope with Difficult Emotions?

by Kay Bruner on March 15, 2015

dashboard

What do I do if I feel like I am struggling with cynicism and hardheartedness?

Also, where is the balance between finding your voice in the hard stuff and not developing tunnel vision for it? For instance, I have been recently being more open about how often I take all the advice to be brave and step out in obedience to God and then feel like he pulls the rug out from under me. It is hard not to feel angry and frustrated about it. But as I try to be honest about that, it can also be that I begin to filter everything through that lens and see it happening in places where it might not be.

The question I’m hearing here is:  what am I supposed to do with difficult emotions?

Many of us grew up thinking that emotions are problems we should get rid of.

Instead, I want to offer you this idea:  emotions are indicators.

Like the flashing red lights on your dashboard–“Empty” or “High Heat” or “Maintenance Required”—your emotions are telling you something is wrong.

So what should we do with our emotional indicators?

I think we always have two choices:  assimilation or accommodation.

These terms come out of the developmental psychology of Jean Piaget.

Assimilation means that I have a framework, and everything has to fit into that framework.

Accommodation means that I will adapt my ideas and practices to new information I receive.

A young child assimilates when he learns the word “dog” and then calls every animal a dog.  He has one category for animal, and everything fits into that category.

The child accommodates when he learns that there are also cats, horses, elephants, and charging rhinos.  He learns that you can pet some animals, and that you should run from others.

As adults, we still have our frames of reference, our expectations.  As long as we live, we’ll be receiving new information and deciding what to do with it:  assimilate or accommodate?

In the world of missions, our framework includes expected difficulties:  separation, inconvenience, language-learning, culture acquisition.  You know there will be challenges.  That’s all part of the deal.

We also have expectations about how we’re going to deal with those challenges:  well!

Right?  We’ve read the books, we’ve taken the training, we’ve got the information, and we’re going to deal with this stuff well.  Other people haven’t, but we will!  That expectation is a huge part of our framework.

But then reality hits, and here it is:  you don’t know if your framework is going to work long term, until you test it.

You don’t know how heat and dengue fever and interminable nights of barking dogs are going to impact your mental health.  You don’t know that your parents will get sick at home or that your child will turn out to have learning disabilities or that your teammates will struggle and bring their struggles down on you.  You don’t know that your husband will become addicted to porn or to his work.  You don’t know what kinds of difficulties are going to come, and what those difficulties might mean in the real world.

Our normal response is to keep assimilating as long as we can, because our framework feels safe.  We’ve built our lives on this framework and dismantling threatens us, and often times, many other people who are heavily invested in the status quo.

Like Cinderella’s stepsisters, we keep trying to cram our foot into the glass slipper, because there’s only one prince and the only way to get him is with this one glass slipper.

We don’t think about the fact that there may be other stories, other possibilities, other things just as good or even better out there for us.  (Why Disney doesn’t do that story, instead of putting out that same old worn out Cinderella thing over and over and over?  As a matter of fact, why don’t WE?  But I digress.)

When the indicators of cynicism and anger and depression and anxiety and frustration start flashing, it may be tempting to yank the lights out of the dashboard and throw them away, but that’s not really a solution.

Instead, let’s honor the signals, and accommodate to challenging circumstances with appropriate new responses.

To get started, assume that emotions are saying something important, and listen to them:

  • Identify the feelings: sad, mad, scared.
  • Write them down. Journal them out.
  • Don’t judge the emotions. Just listen to them.
  • You’re not going to be ruled by your emotions. You’re going to understand them as legitimate indicators of a problem.
  • What other symptoms am I seeing in myself:  sleeplessness, agitation, distractability, intrusive or obsessive thoughts, compulsive behaviors, loss of appetite, loss of interest in normal things, fatigue, social isolation, high levels of conflict with others?  Those are important indicators as well.

Then, get all the other pieces of information out into the open:

  • What are the stressors?
  • Who are the stressors?
  • How long has the stressful situation been in progress?
  • What solutions have I tried, and how have those attempts impacted the situation?
  • What am I afraid to try? Why?
  • Am I in the right job?  Am I in the right place?  Am I with the right organization?
  • Be brutally honest.  You need to know.

Next, think about your boundaries:

  • What is your responsibility in this situation?
  • What is the responsibility of God in this situation?
  • What is the responsibility of others in this situation?
  • Where are you taking responsibility that belongs to God or to others?
  • How can you step back into your own realm of responsibility?
  • What consequences do you fear, when you stop taking responsibility for God and other people?
  • What would freedom look like for you in this situation?
  • Where have you abdicated your freedom in Christ to someone or something else in this situation?
  • What would this situation look like, if it were healthy for every single person involved? Men, women, children, colleagues of every nationality?

Finally, be open to what accommodation might mean in your particular situation:

  • Accommodation may mean recognizing that stress and perhaps even trauma have impacted you, and you need maintenance:  time away, a visit to your doctor, work with a therapist.
  • Accommodation may mean that you rearrange your work life:  reduce work hours, find help for tasks, accept that this job/location/organization/career is a bad fit.
  • Accommodation may mean that you create more margin:  say “no” to some things, keep a Sabbath, take more holiday time.
  • Accommodation may mean that you go for counseling to work through issues of addiction, depression, perfectionism, workaholism, or marital conflict.
  • Accommodation may mean experiencing that God loves you with an everlasting love, even when your framework has crashed and burned into oblivion and you have no idea what happens next.

Accommodation can be scary stuff, but:

Be strong and courageous.  The Lord your God is with you, wherever you go. 

Even way, way, way outside the box.

Photo Credit (changes made)
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About Kay Bruner

Kay Bruner was born in Buffalo, New York and grew up in Brazil, Nigeria, and the wilds of Kentucky. She and her husband have raised their four children in Solomon Islands, Papua New Guinea, and currently reside in the great state of Texas. Kay is a Licensed Professional Counselor, and divides her work days between counseling and writing. She is the author of As Soon As I Fell and blogs at www.kaybruner.com. She is available for counseling at her office in Dallas or via skype for a reduced rate to clients overseas. For more information go to: www.kaybruner.com/counseling
  • Thank you so much for sharing this. I am sure that this is the type of advice that people pay you for! I have been on the field for 2.5 years in Uganda and now and my husband and I are also in the process of adopting. We are just starting to plan our first furlough…and my emotions are definitely indicating some changes in my life. I feel like this is such timely advice and I love the practical steps at the end. Thank you so much.

    • Wow, you’ve got a lot of changes ahead! Exciting stuff–but even good change is change, and most of us find change to be challenging! I hope you can make healthy adjustments, and find good new ways to accommodate in the transitions ahead. And if this helps at all, I’m so happy!

  • Kay, this is one of my new favorite posts! This is so helpful and practical. Thanks 🙂

    • Thanks, Amy. I’m really trying hard each month to provide tools that will be practical, and give people permission to make healthy decisions for themselves. So I’m happy to hear when I hit the mark!

  • Elizabeth Trotter

    The thing I love about this post, Kay, is that it doesn’t just acknowledge hard emotions, it gives a plan for dealing with them. I think too many times, we veer to one side or the other, either just stewing in our yucky feelings and never getting out, or not even acknowledging them, and staying practical and logical. I love that this has a plan for both head and heart 🙂

    • Yeah, I think usually I can find something and work through it when I’ve got icky emotions. And that helps way more than pushing it away. I think when we don’t deal with emotions openly, we end up with all kinds of “sideways” behaviors. For women, lots of classic anxiety and depression symptoms. For men, more acting out: working too much, addiction, anger, etc.

  • sremily

    Kay, such wonderful advice!! Thank you so much for sharing. Whether
    dealing with problems in the mission field or our regular lives, this
    hit home for me as I deal with auto immune/thyroid issues. I AM
    processing everything much better (probably because of thyroid/hormone
    meds, haha) but ACCOMMODATION is my new favorite word along with knowing
    that GOD loves me so much and wants only the best for me! xoxox

    • Isn’t it just such a helpful concept, to know that it’s okay to change how life works when you need to?! Especially when you’ve got special circumstances like yours. And yes, even when accommodation means we can hardly do anything “useful” at all, God loves us so much, and is always for us. Your avatar is awesome, btw. 🙂

  • I just copied this post Kay to be re and re-read for my files that I turn to when working with missionaries. my husband and I do a Member Care ministry for our mission. We cover six southwest states in which we visit missionaries home for furlough. I will be using this material, thank you for putting it out there to be used.

    • Thanks, Betty! I appreciate your encouragement! I hope the ideas here are useful–imagining that summer is a busy time for you as The Great Missionary Migration is well underway 🙂

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