A young acquaintance of mine, recently married, kept complaining about persistent headaches and low physical energy. By terming it as hereditary, she sought sympathy as a hapless victim. On further probing, she narrated her in-law woes and an unsupportive husband. With her dreams being dashed a feeling of being trapped for life was crushing her completely. Even though she vaguely acknowledged the correlation between her anxiety and ill health, her only solution was to keep consulting more doctors.
Having worked for 52 long years, my father hung up his boots last year. At 78, he by no means was willing to slow down but since his company was shutting down, it left him with no option. Of all the challenges that life has posed before him, dealing with retirement has been the toughest - a transition that he is ill prepared for. When an entire life has been defined by the work you do, the absence of it rocks your very core. The isolation caused by the absence of a renewed purpose and loss of relevance is devastating.
Transitions are a reality of life. However, not all of them happen smoothly. A certain mental preparation is needed to embrace it in a way that it doesn’t seem so overwhelming. Marriage, divorce, retirement, illness, single parenting, career change, motherhood, loss of a loved one, change of location can take a toll on us both emotionally and physically. Our ability to cope with these testing times lies in our relationship with our emotions. Transitions are times for us to stop dead in our tracks and reflect. To recalibrate and refuel our emotional energy tank. It's an opportunity for reinvention.
The rising number of people grappling with their changing circumstances is an indication that emotional resilience is being challenged. In conversations these days, words such as depression, tension and stress have become the new normal. Last year, the World Health Organization ranked India and China as the most depressed countries in the world. An India Employee Survey by HR tech startup Hush, 22% respondents felt that their productivity is low due to overwork and stress. For a country that is essentially collectivist in nature where tightly held relationships extend beyond the immediate family; this is a shocking statistic.
Sadly, our education and upbringing have always relegated it to the background, leaving many of us incapable of dealing with emotions that cause discomfort. We expend our energy in quelling uncomfortable emotions such as hurt, shame, guilt, and jealousy. As a child, I remember being told by an elder, “Don’t talk about unpleasant stuff, only share what is enjoyable". As if the act of suppression is far more heroic than sharing vulnerably. When some emotions get masked and not released, it leaves behind a residue that keeps building up till such time as it explodes in the form on bitterness, uncontrolled anger, vindictiveness or depression.
Emotional literacy doesn’t come naturally, it’s a skill that needs to be developed. As we dig deeper to explore the intertwining of our emotions with that of our thoughts, needs and values; we start building a relationship with them. When I am aware and can describe the specific emotion that I am feeling, even when there is social abhorrence towards it; I take a step towards being authentic; leaving me feeling light and spirited.
The pain of life’s whiplashes will not vanish but it can definitely be alleviated. By taking charge of our emotions we are building an arsenal of effective response strategies.
I suggest 5 steps that we could consciously engage in:
- When in a crisis, seek help: Outpouring oneself to friends and family is cathartic but that’s just a temporary address of the issue. A more recommended option would be to get a life coach who will get you to dig deep and de-weed the issue from its root.
- Journal your thoughts and feelings: Writing down your feelings is a great way to ventilate our pent-up thoughts. Like the whistle of a pressure cooker, this provides the release of pressure from time to time.
- Invest in self-improvement courses each year: I echo Socrates’ view that, ‘an unexamined life is not worth living.” Self-discovery courses facilitate the much-needed shedding of some restraining mindsets and a re-cataloging of our thoughts and feelings. It’s like an Intel Pentium processor upgrade that helps us work more efficiently with our emotions.
- Get Curious, go behind the scenes: When you find aberrant behavior, dip into their life journey. It’s easy to label a person as “Oh he is such an angry man.” A more appropriate question would be "What incidents have made him so angry?" When you understand the triggers and the motivations of another, you build a lens to evaluate yourself too. You may even see a bit of yourself in the other, enabling you to be a little more compassionate than judgmental.
- Seek diverse perspectives: Polarity of perspectives draws defined boundaries allowing little space for genuine dialogue based on facts. Currently, our political affiliations (or even the lack of it!) triggers extremity of reactions; ones that are not just limited to raucous TV debates but even drawing room gatherings. Building an appreciation for an opposite view enables us to hold a multiplicity of perspectives. When dissent is welcomed instead of it being feared, the extremity of emotions gets leveled out.
Emotions are a compelling force that determines who we are and what we do. Experiencing and exploring its breadth and depth is the only way we can be better prepared for the transitions that life brings us to. It’s about time we gave this part of ourselves far greater attention than it has received till now.