Few years ago I neglected my social life. Apart from a few weekends away, I didn’t do much to stay in touch with people. If it wasn’t for a few amazing friends who kept reaching out to me, I guess I would have been completely isolated.
Imagine this: After a few years of living all around Europe, I decided to move back in with my parents, in my hometown where I barely know anybody anymore. I figured this would give me the peace and quiet I needed to seriously focus on my writing — even if it meant sacrificing my social life for a while.
Initially, this lifestyle made me terrifyingly lonely. I felt like I deprived myself of any semblance of healthy peer support. On most days, the only people I talked to face-to-face were my parents and shop assistants. Occasionally, I’d call someone or meet for a quick coffee.
While this kind of isolation wasn’t pleasant, it taught me a lot about how to be emotionally strong. Sure, I’m aware of the data showing that we need meaningful connection with others for optimal health. At the same time, I discovered that cultivating emotional balance on my own is also possible — even if very challenging.
I don’t want to say that you need to isolate yourself to develop emotional resilience. I believe that maintaining strong social bonds is always a better option.
But what if you already find yourself feeling lonely? Then I want to tell you that you can use this time to become your own best friend. You’re eventually going to get to the other side of this loneliness and connect with people again.
Why not arrive there as an emotionally stronger person?
The Subtle Difference Between Emotional Strength and Denial
Our common understanding of emotional resilience (or strength) is that it’s the ability to not be overly affected by your emotions. The thing is, this can happen in two ways: by acceptance, or by denial.
Men in our culture know the emotional denial part particularly well — and not due to their negligence. The men I know were often raised in the ethos of a strong, composed macho type who’s not allowed to display his emotions. As much as this might make for a good movie character, for most guys I know, it didn’t help them deal with their feelings.
While women may be a little more welcome to show some emotions, they also aren’t free in this respect. In many places around the world, an angry girl is perceived as “bad.” In my native language (Polish), the word we use for “angry” and “evil” is the same:
Regardless of gender, when we’re told not to express certain emotions, we eventually learn how to hide and control them. As a consequence, a lot of people experience emotional denial, when they can’t admit what they’re feeling even to themselves.
On the outside, this could be seen as emotional resilience. But for the person in question, it’s a struggle, as it requires spending lots of energy to suppress their real feelings. In my experience, suppression usually led to emotional outbursts later on. The feelings I tried to avoid had to find their way out anyway — sometimes it just happened at a later date.
Today, I understand resilience as full awareness of my emotions, fuelled by acceptance and respect towards them. This doesn’t necessarily mean that my feelings drive my behaviour. I realized I can simply see them for what they are and then choose an appropriate response — rather than indulging in reactive drama.
Emotional resilience is about learning how to respond to your emotions after you recognize them. This puts you in charge of how you get through even the most challenging experiences. With a little training and a generous dose of acceptance, you can get yourself into, through, and then out of any emotion — without hurting yourself on the way.
Before I tell you what helped me do just that, let’s address one more thing. What does it really mean to “accept your emotions as they are”?
What Equanimity Really Means
Equanimity is a concept we often pass around without getting to the core of its meaning.
In the mindfulness or Buddhist context, equanimity is related to acceptance. In their Tricycle article, Gil Fronsdal and Sayadaw U Pandita wrote that when we’re equanimous,
‘the mind rests in an attitude of balance and acceptance of things as they are.’
That’s a beautiful and useful explanation of equanimity — unless we misunderstand the “acceptance” part of it.
There are two kinds of acceptance people talk about — external and internal. It’s important to be able to tell one from the other.
- External acceptance refers to putting up with your life conditions without attempting to change them.
- Internal acceptance means to acknowledge the emotional and mental content of your experience as valid.
Some people get mixed up when they hear about equanimity precisely because they confuse these two kinds of acceptance. They worry that if they become “too accepting,” this may lead them to be indifferent.
When you mistake the internal acceptance of thoughts and feelings for the external acceptance of circumstances, you may believe that equanimity is about tolerating bad behaviour or obvious harm.
But this notion is misguided. True equanimity is concerned with one’s internal experience in the first place. An equanimous person operates from a standpoint that whatever thoughts or emotions arise, they’re valid.
Ugly thoughts appearing in the mind? Okay, welcome them — but recognize them as thoughts, not reality.
Painful feelings? Sure, let them in — it’s natural that they arise, even if you don’t fully understand their causes.
Happiness and excitement? Enjoy them while they last — but try not to get attached to them as they, too, shall pass.
When you train that internal acceptance, it will do two things for you.
- Accepting your discomfort the way it is may cause it to diminish later on. Acceptance and Commitment Therapy is built around the notion that an efficient way to deal with suffering (both physical and psychological) is to allow yourself to feel your pain fully. Just make sure you’re not feeling it with the primary intention of getting rid of it — because then it becomes just another form of control.
- As you accept your internal experiences, it becomes easier for you to tell which of your external conditions call for a change. In other words, when you treat your thoughts and feelings as valid, you’re likely to get clearer on what you need to improve in your environment or behaviour. Christopher Germer says that “moment-to-moment acceptance is a prerequisite for behaviour change.”
In the same way, equanimity is the prerequisite if you want to be emotionally strong. To handle your feelings without being driven by them, it helps to become familiar with them in the first place.
Now let’s take a look at how you can do just that.
Naming Your Feelings Supports Emotional Strength
Embracing your emotions without letting them control you sounds great as a concept. But it’s certainly one of these things that are easier said than done.
How exactly can you “feel the fear and do it anyway” or “experience anger without venting onto others”?
To me, the most helpful thing was to work on it in solitude. While feeling isolated can be seen as a health threat, I found that it also afforded me a safe space to process my emotions. When I didn’t see other people, I was pretty much forced to be with my feelings.
Of course, loneliness also put me at risk of engaging in rumination or becoming easily overwhelmed. That’s why — and I can’t stress this enough — if you intend to engage in this kind of work, you need to find a way to distance yourself from your feelings, at least some of the time.
To create distance doesn’t mean numbing your emotions. Rather, it’s about constantly reminding yourself that you are not your feelings. They just happen to you, they come and go — and however overwhelming they can seem at any point, this state isn’t going to last forever.
Keeping a healthy distance from your feelings can also save you from the trap of breeding emotions upon emotions. I saw this happening to me countless times. If I wasn’t paying mindful attention to the first emotion when it came — it was likely to bring on a never-ending string of other feelings.
For example, I entered this kind of reactive emotional patterns:
- I felt angry at one of my parents. I judged it as a “bad” thing. As a result, I felt guilty that I got angry. Then, I felt annoyed that I feel guilty because that made it hard for me to focus on work.
- When I felt lonely, I often pitied myself for it. The pity usually brought on sadness and led to crying. Then, my inability to stop crying led to anxiety because I wished I could’ve controlled my behaviour.
With time, I realized that the key to becoming emotionally strong was to stop this chain reaction — the earlier, the better. But the way to stop it wasn’t by controlling. Rather, I did it through distilling individual feelings from what seemed like an ocean of emotional upheaval.
The easiest way to do that was to choose one particular emotion and name it. Once I did that, I could focus on experiencing it fully.
My friend Sílvia Bastos wrote an excellent article about naming feelings as a way to strengthen your mind. This practice is as straightforward as it sounds — to start with, just focus on fishing out one emotion and giving it a name. As Silvia says:
“When I look at my NVC list of feelings and I find the perfect word to describe my emotional state in that moment, I feel a sense of inner peace — the kind of peace that creates movement and progress. (…)
This helps me keep track of what I felt before, and the more I see how much these feelings change, the more I can tolerate and accept them. Whenever I feel anxious or angry or sad, my mind sees that I have been there before, and it realizes that if before the misery eventually gave way to happiness, then it will do it again. And the mind becomes wiser, stronger and more balanced.”
Take It One Emotion At a Time
Developing emotional resilience may seem like an insurmountable task. After all, there’s so much you feel every day, and a big part of it is challenging. That’s why it’s important to take this endeavour one step at a time.
In this case, one step doesn’t equal one day or even one hour. When working with emotions, a moment-to-moment approach is the most helpful one. It narrows your focus down to the smallest, most manageable scope of experience.
At the same time, whenever you take care of the present moment, all the future moments are naturally taken care of, too.
When you’re faced with a challenging feeling, commit to experiencing it fully for only as long as it seems manageable. You can start with literally just five seconds. As you continue your emotional training, you may extend it to six, ten and then, eventually, ninety.
There are reasons to believe that, at ninety seconds, the natural lifespan of any emotion ends —if only you don’t cling to it. Harvard-trained neuroscientist Jill Bolte Taylor says that
“When a person has a reaction to something in their environment, there’s a 90-second chemical process that happens in the body; after that, any remaining emotional response is just the person choosing to stay in that emotional loop.”
You don’t have to stay in that loop anymore. All you need is to consistently apply attention and acceptance to your feelings. You don’t have to drown yourself in them, either. Instead, you can choose to feel them, name them and, at the same time, keep a healthy distance to them.
I keep my fingers crossed for you on this challenging (yet ultimately rewarding) path of inner growth. I’m sure you can do this. Why? Because I experienced that it is possible to approach my emotions in this way — even in moments of complete hopelessness.
The only thing you need is to be open to wholeheartedly try it.