Trying to squash out emotional pain is like playing a game of Whack-A-Mole: frustrating, futile, and a sure way to lose your marbles, even if temporarily. If you manage to stomp out one part of the problem (or so you think) it manifests itself somewhere else.
Indeed, most of us agree that bottling our emotions this way is unproductive—and unhealthy. But what about “releasing” your feelings? We’re often told this is far more effective than not facing our feelings at all. I’ve certainly tried it: screaming into a pillow, running until I can only feel the blisters on my feet, talking (ranting) the problem to death, making sure my loyal listener knows exactly how I feel…
For many of us (including me), this strategy is often no better than Emotion Whack-A-Mole, however. As far as I can tell, negative emotions can’t be released as easily as sweat, tears, or even pillow screams. In fact, these methods of emotional “detox” seem only to build the toxicity of negative feelings. The energy invested in trying to push them out seems only the feed them!
That’s not to say that exercise (in moderation) or talking through things (calming) can’t help you heal—because they can! But be wary of latching on to the idea that they work as a simple trade in. Intense workout in does not equal personal problem out.
So if bottling up our emotions is no good and if trying to weed them out just makes things worse, how the heck are we to process our maddening feelings?!
I’m certainly no expert in reaching a state of zen—but I am a pretty experienced journaller (diarist?). The following are a few journaling methods that have helped me feel more sane during emotionally difficult phases. Journaling leads me to a happ(ier) medium: I can explore my feelings honestly without letting them drive me to insanity. No Whack-A-Mole. No blisters.
1. Free-writing. Free-writing is when you sit down and write for 10-15 minutes without removing your pen from the page. This means that you write whatever comes to mind—even if it’s totally random, even if it hurts. The point of free-writing is to allow your mind to move beyond your tidy, everyday thoughts—which often include the rationalized version of a raw feeling. By bringing your raw feelings to the surface, you may learn why you really feel the way you do—no small thing in the healing process. While free-writing can bring up something painful, it may end up teaching you more about yourself.
2. Write an “Unmailed, Unwritten” letter. In my favorite Joyce Carol Oates short story, “Unmailed, Unwritten Letters,” the protagonist composes several letters to her parents, her husband, her lover, etc. As the title suggests, these letters aren’t really sent to their subjects. Try writing a letter to someone about your feelings under the premise that you won’t mail it. Write to the person who hurt you, write to an old friend, write to a late relative. It’s fascinating how freeing this can be.
3. Write outside. By outside, I don’t necessarily outdoors. Sometimes it’s too hot for that! Rather, write somewhere different than your usual spot. Try a café, the library, or even a different room in your house. It’s easy to underestimate the power of our surroundings. Different places (and people watching!) can bring us to new perspectives. They can also take us out of our bubble, helping us realize that the world is still doing its thing, despite our problem. If we let it, this realization can be quite comforting and ultimately freeing.
4. Get artsy. Sometimes words feel empty. Or they don’t come at all. A while ago, I asked my intuition (I talk to it sometimes) how I could feel better about something that had been haunting me for a while. “Art,” a little voice said (my intuition talks back). Make art. It doesn’t need to be framable, and you don’t have to show anyone. Just start making images and see what happens. I especially love making mixed media collages. By getting “in the zone” while I work with something tangible, seems to help my mind sort things out in the background. It becomes a kind of meditation, really. You can make art about your feelings or something completely unrelated.
5. Get listy. This final method is something you can do anywhere—on your phone on the subway, on a napkin in a café, etc. Simply make a list of all the thing that are currently inspiring you. My dear friend from grad school is fond of doing what she calls “life experiments,” which just means trying something new in your life with hopes for positive results. By calling it an “experiment” rather than a “goal” or “resolution,” there’s a lessened sense of risk. My current life experiment is focusing on inviting more positivity into my day instead trying to flush the negative. The hope is that the positive will organically crowd out the negative. Journaling about what inspires me is one way I’m performing this experiment. So far, so good.
What do you think about these journaling ideas?
Also see: The Joys of Keeping a Journal
Photos: Mary Hood