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The dos and don’ts of emotional support

The dos and don'ts of emotional support
Giving emotional support is not as straightforward as you may think

Giving emotional support is not as straightforward as you may think. When we acknowledge that most of us were raised in an environment of emotional neglect and perfectionism, it becomes clear how a lack of emotional intimacy affects our ability to deal with feelings naturally. The habit of distancing ourselves from feelings, especially when negative, and refusing to embrace their wisdom and our own vulnerability, only creates an even bigger distance between others and ourselves. If you would like to change that scenario and feel more connected, here are the dos and don’ts of emotional support:

1- Do not problem solve

Emotional support does what it says on the tin. Therefore, it is not about coming up with ideas to solve a problem, but dealing with the feelings that surround it. Unless there is a clear call for help, most of us do not need practical advice when talking about the issues that concern or upset us. It is also worth noticing that the urge to “help” and solve other people’s problems or afflictions – even when help is neither needed nor requested – is at the core of codependent behaviour.

2- Focus on feelings

Emotional support comes from a place of attunement to another person’s need for having his or her feelings recognised and validated. There is nothing more comforting when we are feeling low, frustrated or anxious, for instance, than having someone around us that respects our inadequacy by honouring the way we feel. When you say to someone in distress, “I can see that that is upsetting to you”, regardless of what is going on or if you agree with that person’s reasons or emotional reaction, you make him or her feel seen, accepted and understood.

3- Do not make it about you

Our complexity as individuals is so immense, that no experience is ever felt in an equal fashion by two different people. As soon as you start talking about your experience, giving examples of how you have dealt with a similar issue to the one brought up by the other person, the focus is turned to you. As it has been mentioned before, emotional support is not about analysing and comparing experiences and, supposedly, learning from them, but noticing and addressing feelings.

4- Do not antagonise

To antagonise is to oppose, which is the opposite of what is understood by “to support”. While an emotionally congruent and supportive person favours the expression and recognition of feelings, be it in himself/herself or others, an antagonising, selfish or emotionally neglectful one has the habit of ignoring, repressing, avoiding, denying or normalising them. When you behave like the latter, you are not giving emotional support, but alienating the other. You can do that quite automatically, unintentionally and unconsciously, by using common sense judgement, motivational speech, excessive positive psychology and platitudes, for instance.

5- Be empathic

Empathy is like a mirror, or the ability to feel, see and experience what the other is feeling, seeing or experiencing. Simply put, when someone feels sad, angry, fearful or disgusted, those are the feelings you focus on and seek to validate. Moreover, you display an empathic attitude when you do the following:

  • Take time to listen: let the person speak and do not interrupt. Do not rush to get that tissue or glass of water either, but focus on what the person has to say first.
  • Stay with the inadequacy and embrace it. Be emotionally tolerant by allowing emotional expression and flow.
  • Agree with the other. Put yourself in his or her shoes and try to see the world from his or her perspective.
  • When lost for words, use the following:

“It must have been hard”

“I see that that is upsetting to you”

“I also hate when that happens”

“I hear you. That must have been annoying for you”

 “Feeling anxious sucks, doesn’t it?”

“ I can see that you are angry, what happened?”

“It is awful when that happens”

“You must have felt uncomfortable”

“I understand that that is not easy for you”

“I am sorry you feel that way”

“I see your point”

“That’s sad/scary/disgusting/awful/annoying!”

“I understand how that must have made you feel”

“It must suck feeling that way”

  • Give the other a sign of your affection. If you have an intimate relationship with the other person, you can also offer him or her a hug or a kiss, once he or she has finished talking and dealing with his or her feelings of inadequacy.

How we perpetuate self-despise

Even though most of us agree that self-hatred is detrimental to emotional health and self-esteem, fighting that self-sabotaging tendency is not as straightforward. That is because very few of us were raised with enough love and respect in order to build a solid base for our self-esteem, or an organic sense of unconditional self-love. Western upbringing is often the opposite of that, but largely affected by transgenerational trauma and controlling, perfectionist and punitive beliefs. Such values do not foster a healthy relationship with the self, but make a child feel like a third class citizen already from an early age. That process is noticeable in the internalisation of our parents’ critical voices, which become our “inner critic” or “gremlin”. Naturally, undoing that negative programming takes time and conscious effort. To help you understand what keeps you stuck on that self-hate mode, here is how we perpetuate self-despise:

1- Labels

How we perpetuate self-despise
Self-hatred is detrimental to emotional health and self-esteem

Name-calling oneself with words of negative connotation such as “stupid”, “fat”, etc., is more harmful to your self-esteem than you think. Words stick, hurt and can easily become your truth. Moreover, the habit of saying them to yourself – even in a playful tone – is usually a sign that you are failing in loving and accepting yourself unconditionally. Labelling is one of your critical voice’s most powerful resources to shame and put you down. It is virtually impossible to value yourself when your self-appraisal vocabulary is mostly belittling and denigratory.

2- Perfectionism

Despite corresponding to a self-sabotaging way of thinking and behaving, perfectionism is very common and widely accepted. Contrary to popular belief, however, always striving for excellence is not a positive trait, but a tendency that, in the great majority of instances, promotes intolerance and self-hate. We are not made for getting everything absolutely right, 100% of the time. The complexity of human beings – or the great variety of our emotional and physical states – does not allow us to be constant and express a single and unchanging pattern of behaviour. Insisting on “always doing your best” (and self-criticizing every time you do not achieve that goal) is like cognitive punishment for being human.

3- Emotional intolerance

Do you blame yourself and others for feeling anger, shame, sadness and fear? Do you feel ashamed for having and expressing negative feelings, inadequate or even angry when others allow themselves to honour their feelings in a non-abusive manner? If yes, you are emotionally intolerant. Emotional intolerance leads to self-contempt and a judgemental attitude, be it exclusively towards your own emotional states or others’. The habit of rejecting your human qualities, such as the ability to connect with yourself, the world and others trough emotions, makes you feel empty and inauthentic in the long term. As time goes by, you start feeling increasingly more alone and disconnected. As your disappointment in yourself grows, you keep the vicious cycle of self-hate alive, even when conscious of its dangers.

4- Unresolved childhood trauma

Excessive self-criticism, intense feelings of shame, inadequateness and sadness, as well as built-up anger are amongst the most common effects of developmental trauma. If you have never taken the time to process, both psychologically and emotionally, the adverse events that marked your childhood years, it is much harder for you to feel competent and loveable. Due to the insidious, prolonged and complex nature of childhood trauma, it tends to remain untreated for a long while, affecting the victim’s sense of worth, self-protection and self-preservation. There is no better environment in which to learn how to hate and despise oneself than that of toxic families. Abuse and neglect are renowned for leaving a lasting impression in trauma victims, compromising – if not addressed and terminated – their ability to value, protect and like themselves.

5- Rigid beliefs

Rigid beliefs are deeply connected to low self-esteem and other mental health issues such as anxiety and depression. Dysfunctional behaviours, such as the ones mentioned above, are created and kept by inflexible thinking filled with cognitive errors such as “all-or-nothing”. Firstly, you are much more complex than a single word is able to define. By the same token, making a mistake or not being able to hide your disappointment, for instance, does not make your whole self a failure. Rigid beliefs such as “I am boring” (labelling), “I can only feel proud of myself when I stand out” (perfectionism), “expressing negative emotions is a sign of weakness“ (emotional intolerance) and “If I trust others, I will get hurt by them” (unresolved childhood trauma) rob you from your right to develop a rewarding relationship with yourself and others. It is as if only a negative, global and unchanging perspective were accurate.

If negative and critical remarks against yourself and your performance come more naturally to you than tolerant and self-compassionate ones, it is time to turn your focus to nurturing self-esteem. To fight that dysfunctional tendency, try out the following:

  1. No more labels: stop being mean to yourself. Have a zero tolerance with labels and start catching and correcting yourself when you use words of a global and negative meaning.
  2. Value your efforts: become a “glass half-full” type of person. Quickly step up to defend your efforts, and literally shut up your inner critic.
  3. Stop judging “negative” emotions. Experiment with observing how you feel with curiosity. Do not fight your feelings, but embrace them and learn from them.
  4. Heal your trauma wounds: if you suspect to have suffered childhood trauma, seek the help of a professional to reorganise your narrative and manage the effects of trauma.
  5. Restructure your beliefs: choose flexible beliefs that reflect the adult and confident you, who is open to love and a fulfilling life.

 

4 reasons why feeling sorry for yourself helps you grow

Intolerance against negative feelings is so widespread, that it is acceptable to feel sorry for others, but not for oneself. The belief that supports that rigid, all-or-nothing mentality, often equates feeling sad or even depressed to an act of self-victimisation, as if melancholy were solely a means to deceiving others or attracting attention to oneself. Those who identify with that perspective struggle to validate their own suffering, especially when persistent. Contrary to popular belief, however, never truly accessing the root of emotional discomfort does not make it go away, but it tends to extend its life unnecessarily. To help you let go of the prejudiced notion that feeling and expressing vulnerability is always a sign of weakness, here are 4 reasons why feeling sorry for yourself helps you grow:

4 reasons why feeling sorry for yourself helps you grow
Feeling sorry for yourself may work as a wake-up call to make positive life style changes

1- You become more emotionally aware and whole

When you allow yourself to feel without judgement, you naturally become more receptive and mindful of your emotional states. Learning how to live at peace with your feelings, in turn, boosts emotional congruence and confidence, which also means giving a powerful voice to your authentic self. As a result, you feel more connected with the whole of you: your mind, body and true identity, leading a more fulfilling and rewarding life.

2- It motivates you into taking action

Feeling sorry for yourself may work as a wake-up call to make positive life style changes. That is because life dissatisfaction and disappointment tend to lead to a process of intense self-evaluation and reassessment. There is nothing quite like hitting rock bottom to motivate one into adapting to new circumstances, repairing relationships and replacing bad habits with healthier ones.

3- It helps you improve emotional health

Increased awareness and respect for negative feelings enables you to quickly identify what is wrong and do something about it. As physical pain, emotional discomfort is there to warn you of potential dangers to your wellbeing. When you address your own inadequateness in a conscious, mature manner and without shaming and blaming yourself, you feel more centred and stronger. Your ability to deal with whatever is bothering you proactively – and even ask for help if needed – increases, which influences emotional health positively.

4- You become more compassionate and tolerant

The extremely biased connotation of “feeling sorry for yourself” reflects a culture of emotional neglect and intolerance. Thinking badly about yourself for feeling disheartened only promotes self-contempt and a self-criticising attitude. When you start embracing and honouring all your feelings, however, you not only become more understanding and empathic towards yourself, but others. Consequently, you also connect more easily with those around you and relationships become more functional.

It is not human to feel good or happy all the time. Therefore, it is not shameful to feel sorry for yourself when sadness takes over. Nobody should feel guilty for expressing genuinely felt negative emotions. If you would like to feel connected and live a more authentic life, it may be time to let go of your prejudice against feeling and expressing negative emotions, such as fear and shame. An all-or-nothing mentality that wrongly assumes that if you allow yourself to feel the full intensity of your sadness or even cry, “you will never stop”, keeps you emotionally stuck and hinders your personal growth and development. To fight that tendency, start acting “as if” you do not care about how others perceive your pain and dare to be yourself, whatever that means.

3 developmental trauma beliefs and the problems they cause

3 developmental trauma beliefs and the problems they cause
Dysfunctional beliefs lead to dysfunctional coping strategies

Traumatic events change our perception of ourselves, the world and others. Because our sense of safety and trust are shaken and sometimes even shattered by trauma, we “learn” from the pain we feel by changing our views and adapting, cognitively and emotionally, to our circumstances. In developmental trauma – a series of adverse experiences in childhood which affect one’s development –  that change is quite dramatic and it tends to transcend time. Imagine an adult who, as a child, was repeatedly criticised and attacked verbally by an abusive mother and/or father. His rigid and negative beliefs, formed as a result of trauma, would probably prevent him from holding a coherent view of himself as a competent and lovable adult. These beliefs would also serve as to warn him of the dangers of love and intimacy that, supposedly and for him, would apply to all close relationships. Living in a world in where safety cannot be felt even in the family home, this trauma victim would feel empty and lost, as if his existential wound could never be healed.

As dysfunctional beliefs lead to dysfunctional coping strategies, and those, in turn, to mental health and relationship problems, it is worth being conscious of how your thinking could be affecting your happiness. If you suspect to have suffered developmental trauma and would like to become more conscious of its effects, here are 3 developmental trauma beliefs and the problems they cause:

1- “I cannot trust others”

Developmental trauma victims struggle to believe in and rely on other people. That is because they had their trust broken very early in life and at a time of intense vulnerability. Since they were betrayed by those who were close to them – namely their primary caregiver(s), such as their mother and/or father – the damage caused by such loss is far greater. Their fear of rejection and abandonment, even when completely unjustified and unrelated to their current circumstances, often results in obsessive self-reliance. Their lack of faith in people’s good intentions and ability to become a positive influence on their lives make it impossible for them to ask and even accept help, when needed. That tendency gives rise to codependent behaviours and loneliness, as well as it increases their probability of becoming depressed, due to their need to isolate or neglect their own feelings when things get tough. A healthy, intimate relationship with oneself and others is seldom achieved without conscious effort and dedication.

2- “I am unlovable”

When a child does not have her feelings validated or is constantly attacked or ignored, he is not able to separate his parents’ anger and neglectful attitude from his own sense of self-worth. Because children do not have the intellectual sophistication of an adult, they immediately associate their parents’ attitude with something to do with themselves, as if they were intrinsically related (“If my mum is not interested in me/is angry at me, it is because I am boring/not good enough”). Naturally, that feeling of unworthiness is also frequently present in children who are physically and/or psychologically/emotionally abused. In order to deal with the torturing feeling of inadequateness that comes from believing that “There is something wrong with me”, these trauma victims work hard to be noticed and feel worthy of love and acceptance. Self-esteem is low and “built” from the outside in through conditional love. They become perfectionists, codependents, approval junkies and people pleasers, who find it hard to say no. All of which are driven by a powerful fear of rejection.

3- “The world is a dangerous place”

Living in fear creates a state of alertness that shapes the way the brain develops and processes information about the environment. A child that is raised by emotionally unstable, anxious, extremely inconsistent or unpredictable parents, sees the world as a dangerous place filled with threats to his well-being. Guided by the thinking that “something bad is about to happen” and “I am weak/helpless”, as well as the anxiety that follows, his behaviour becomes dictated by fear. The trauma victim’s biased negative thinking and low self-confidence turns everything into a challenge. Making changes, creating new habits, taking risks, standing up for oneself and meeting new people, as other similar behaviours that require self-confidence, are a source of unease, and, in some cases, even panic. Because high anxiety crushes motivation, it gets in the way of personal, academic and professional achievement. It also affects sleep and physical health. Relationships suffer as a result. Anxiety, as a powerful mood killer, makes a person seem inaccessible, indifferent, distant and even difficult, which are traits not usually seen as attractive for those who feel whole and are emotionally intelligent.

As depressing as all of the above may seem, those trauma beliefs that may be causing you so much pain can be restructured. If you identify with the above, start actively challenging negative thinking that is stopping you from trusting yourself and others. Be objective when you catch yourself catastrophizing and stop taking everything personally. Bear in mind that our subjective reality is built from background knowledge, which is organised and categorised through core beliefs. That knowledge – highly subjective and loaded with emotional significance – does not equate, necessarily, to fact.

3 facts about core beliefs that will make you reassess your own

3 facts about core beliefs that will make you reassess your own
Core beliefs not only reflect our history, but also help define it

We organise information about ourselves, the world and other people through core beliefs. Core beliefs are cognitive units of knowledge that allow us to make sense of reality in a way that is coherent with our perspective. They affect how we interpret and store information that is processed by our senses, as well as our feelings and behaviours in relation to it. As they are a product of culture, the environment and the quality of our experience and the relationships we have had over the years, core beliefs not only reflect our history, but also help define it. Because they are so hugely influential on the way we think, feel, relate to others and lead our lives, expanding your knowledge about them can be a productive exercise. To help you achieve just that, here are 3 facts about core beliefs that will make you reassess your own:

1- Core beliefs are often unrelated to objective reality

Because you feel strongly about something, it does not mean it reflects an accurate approach or evaluation. In fact, strong convictions are supported by rigid beliefs. Those beliefs, in turn, are deeply connected to our experience and subjective perspective. Experience is then given significance by emotions, which play a big part in convincing us of the “veracity” of something, even when there is little or no concrete proof to validate it. We are able to observe that process in practice, when we are quick to agree with or reject something or someone without further deliberation. When it comes to making a decision or formulating judgement, the quicker and more automatic your reactions, the more subjective, intuitive and emotional.

2- Core beliefs are stored in the “emotional brain”

Core beliefs are stored in the amygdala, which is part of the limbic system. The amygdala is responsible for behavioural and emotional reactions such as anger, fear and responding to stressful situations (fight or flight response), as well as encoding, storing and retrieving memories of events that define our personal experience. Those memories – loaded with emotional significance – are what shape our core beliefs about ourselves, the world and others. When we take into consideration subjective perspective, our past predicts the future. Core beliefs reflect that principle accurately, since they tend to remain rigid throughout an individual’s development, and are indifferent to the changes he or she experiences. For that reason, a single or multiple traumatic events in childhood have the potential to define one’s view of himself or herself as an incompetent and unlovable adult, for instance, and remain unchanged for many years after their occurrence.

3- Core beliefs are at the root of mental health problems

As core beliefs are formed in childhood and are of an inflexible nature, they are prone to filtering information in an extremely biased and often irrational manner. Depression and anxiety sufferers, as well as trauma victims, for instance, tend to hold a very negative view of themselves, the world and others. Individuals who believe not to be good enough and, therefore, are terrified of “looking silly” and being judged by others in social interactions are highly likely to develop anxiety problems. When that anxiety becomes unbearable, they may feel the need to isolate from social contact, a dysfunctional behaviour which is also at the heart of depression. Similarly, trauma victims whose core beliefs about emotions are centred on denial are naturally resistant to approaching their own suffering honestly and proactively. That tendency compromises their ability to manage the effects of trauma in the long term, which may result in debilitating and life changing mental health issues, such as addictions and eating disorders.

If you suspect that your core beliefs are interfering with your psychological and emotional wellbeing, it is worth taking some time to reassess them. To evaluate whether they enhance or hinder your self-esteem, as well as personal growth and development, check in with yourself every time you feel a change in your mood. Ask yourself, “What was I thinking just now?” and analyse your automatic thoughts as objectively as you can. What do they say about the views you hold about yourself, the world and others? What is the tone of the rules, attitudes and assumptions that guide your thinking and behaviour? Are they too strict or flexible? Do they reflect a compassionate or overtly critical perspective?

How to identify feelings of shame

How to identify feelings of shame
Shame is the most toxic of emotions

The relevance of shame should not be underestimated, since it is the most toxic of emotions. Shame not only crushes one’s self-esteem, but it is also at the core of mental health problems, such as depression and anxiety. Despite being potentially harmful to our psychological and emotional wellbeing, shame is rarely dealt with in a straightforward manner. Because it is so uncomfortable to talk about shame, it usually takes a reasonable amount of talking until most of us feel safe enough to relate our thinking and behaviour to deep feelings of shame, or the core beliefs that fuel them.

As emotional healing is all about feeling whole and connected, it is vital that you learn how to identify feelings of shame. As Brené Brown (2013) points out in her bestseller Daring Greatly, “Shame hates having words wrapped around it. If we speak shame, it begins to wither”. To help you name and shame your shame and deal with it as openly as you can, the following are common feelings and attitudes that are motivated by it:

  • Feeling left out, ignored, unimportant
  • Feeling defeated, vulnerable, weak
  • Feeling rejected, unwanted, not good enough
  • Feeling hate or disgust towards yourself
  • Avoiding social contact or being the centre of attention
  • Always believing in what others have to say about you, especially when negative
  • Feeling inadequate and embarrassed about what you have said and done
  • Finding it hard to accept the whole of you, especially what you do not consider a positive trait
  • Feeling crushed by self-criticism to the point of having thoughts of suicide
  • Refraining from saying anything in social gatherings or giving voice to your needs or opinions for considering them not important or interesting enough to others
  • Constantly worrying about what other people think
  • Not being able to say no or always doing what others want in order to feel valued in a relationship
  • Believing not to be liked or loved, as if it were a fact and not just a thought
  • Behaving in a certain way to gain the approval of others, even when it does not reflect the true you
  • Not having anything positive to say about yourself or your appearance
  • Putting the wellbeing of others before your own or believing it is your duty to care for others
  • Hiding or lying about your age, having a need to look younger
  • Feeling more comfortable with the thought of failure than that of success
  • Feeling like a bad or broken person, or believing that you are the reason why something bad has happened to you
  • Procrastinating or taking a lot of time to do something, so to get it “absolutely right”
  • Thinking that nobody feels the way you do or has experienced the things you have
  • Feeling different or less than others, as if you were not worthy of good things
  • Struggling to accept the good or believe in others’ love or interest in you
  • Minimising the harm done to you by an abusive relationship
  • Feeling you cannot do anything right or achieve what you would have liked in life
  • Staying in a broken relationship for not believing you could do any better
  • Being in denial about how you feel, or doing your utmost to hide your true emotions so not to be “judged by others”
  • Felling used
  • Taking things personally: immediately believing something is your fault/you have done something wrong when others are not as friendly or polite as you would have liked or expected
  • Not being able to take criticism objectively, feeling not good enough immediately after making a mistake or not being able to fulfil expectations
  • Using labels of negative connotation to describe yourself and your behaviour, such as stupid, ugly, fat, etc.
  • Having the habit of analysing your own performance, what you have said and done, in order to identify mistakes or errors in your judgement

Reference:

Brown, B. (2013). Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent and Lead. New York, NY: Gotham Books.