How to Cope With Difficult Emotions When Your Partner Has Cancer
Learning how to cope with difficult emotions during your partner’s cancer battle is super important. For both people, this time can feel like being on an emotional roller coaster. There are so many emotions coming at you around every turn. It can be exhausting. However, when you learn a few key skills to cope with difficult emotions, you can smooth out the ride.
Ways of Coping With Difficult Emotions That Don’t Work
Let’s first talk about the three common things you might be doing to cope with difficult emotions that don’t actually work.
The first common way of coping with difficult emotions that does not really help is when you try to resist your emotions. If you are trying hard to keep it together and be strong, yet it feels like you are just barely holding on, then you are resisting your emotions. You probably feel like you need to keep your emotions at bay so that you don’t “lose it”. It’s kind of like trying to hold a beach ball underwater. It takes a lot of effort and the more you push down, the harder it is.
The problem is that your emotions don’t just go away. When you try to hold them off, they will eventually break through with even greater intensity. Usually at the worst time! That beach ball will come flying up out of the water. That usually looks like breaking down at the worst possible time, lashing out at others, or completely withdrawing.
Another common way of coping with difficult emotions is reacting to them. Reacting to emotion means you are acting out of that emotion. If you are angry and you yell at someone, you are acting out of that emotion. If you find yourself irritable and short-tempered, then you are letting your emotions determine your behavior. This is normal and happens to all of us, but it usually results in behaving in a way we don’t really like or aren’t proud of.
A third frequent way you may be trying to cope is by avoiding your emotions. This is probably the most common way of dealing with your negative emotions that helps you feel better in the short term, but has longer term consequences. It looks like turning to food, alcohol, or Netflix as a means of escaping what you are feeling. You can also avoid your emotions by shopping, having sex, or social media surfing. All of these activities will numb you from the emotions you are feeling, but don’t actually help you deal with them. What ends up happening is you will feel even more terrible the next day and the emotions you were trying to escape just come back.
So, what should you do instead to cope with negative emotions?
Don’t Judge Your Negative Emotions
One of the first things you need to understand about your emotions is that they are not right or wrong, good or bad. Emotions are simply vibrations you experience in your body that are triggered by your thoughts. Many people experience feelings of anger or guilt and then feel bad for even having those emotions. This judgment is not useful and only adds to your pain.
Emotions are a natural part of the human experience. You are going to experience positive and negative emotions. However, when you judge yourself for having negative emotions, you add additional suffering on top of the pain you are feeling. This doesn’t do anyone any good!
If you find yourself feeling bad or guilty for how you are feeling, recognize it and decide right there to let that judgment go! A coach or good friend can also help you with this. Self-judgment is never helpful because it keeps us stuck in a cycle of feeling bad about ourselves. It’s hard to support our partner if we are caught up in self-judgment and criticism.
Emotions Must Be Acknowledge
The next key step to coping with negative emotions is being willing to acknowledge what you are feeling. That may seem obvious, but our natural reaction to any negative emotion is to want to resist it and push it away. Instead, you need to do the opposite. You need to recognize it and acknowledge the experience you are having.
Say to yourself:
I’m feeling really sad right now, and that’s OK.
I’m feeling scared, and that’s OK.
Acknowledging your negative emotions does two things. It makes a distinction between you and the emotion you’re experiencing at that moment. Instead of “I’m scared.” Say, “I’m feeling scared.” It also brings to consciousness the experience, which allows you to “see” and validate the emotion for yourself. When you do that, you take away some of your natural resistance to it. This may seem a little weird at first, but honestly, it works. Try it!
Negative Emotions Must Be Allowed
The final step to coping with negative emotions is to allow yourself to feel and process your emotions. Emotion is essentially energy and energy needs a place to go. You need to open up to it. Opening up and feeling an emotion is very different from reacting to it. It means becoming an observer of your emotion.
How do you do this? There are lots of ways, but one of the easiest ways to allow and process your emotion is to simply give yourself permission to feel:
I’m feeling angry, and that’s OK.
I’m feeling anxious, but I’m OK.
Saying this to yourself both acknowledges the experience you are having AND gives yourself permission to have it!
Another way to really process your emotions is to observe the sensation it creates in your body. Close your eyes, focus on your body and try to describe the actual sensation of the emotion. Does it feel like tightness in your chest? A fast vibration in your stomach? Does your throat feel tight? Describe to yourself how the emotion feels and let it be in your body without judgment or resistance. Just become an observer of it.
You may initially be afraid of this part because you might feel like you will get swallowed up by your emotions. Or, you might feel like once you open up to it, it won’t stop. I promise that neither will happen. Your emotions will flow through you if you stop resisting them. This can sometimes take a few minutes, and sometimes hours or days, but it will flow. So remember, the quickest way out of any emotion is directly through it!
When you start practicing these three simple steps: stop judging your emotions, acknowledge them, and open up to them, you will find that your negative emotions aren’t as scary as you first thought. This skill can be a game-changer in your experience with your partner’s cancer.