“The key to cultivating confidence and creating a life you love lies in the ability to handle unpleasant emotions.”
As far back as kindergarten, psychologist Joan Rosenberg, Ph.D., author of “90 Seconds to a Life You Love” (Little, Brown Spark, 2019), remembers feeling exquisitely shy and self-conscious. As one of the youngest and smallest in her class, she was bullied and often excluded by her peers, which resulted in an array of overwhelming emotions including feeling embarrassed and vulnerable.
She remembers thinking, “Why can’t I join in and have a good time like the other kids?”
Other later painful experiences, first, a fellow summer camp counselor telling her she was “boring,” and a couple of years later, struggling to feel her sadness after the death of a close friend, became strong catalysts to find answers to issues that perplexed her.
The last two events led her down a path of self-discovery that centered around two questions:
- How do people develop self-confidence?
- What makes it so difficult for people to tolerate unpleasant emotions or feelings?
It was only years later, after working with psychotherapy clients as a psychologist both in the Air Force and at the University of California, Los Angeles, and teaching graduate psychology at several universities, including Pepperdine University in Los Angeles, she realized that the answers to these seemingly divergent questions were actually linked together.
Rosenberg explains that most people believe that shutting down unpleasant emotions they’re feeling will lead to a greater sense of control and emotional strength; instead, such shutting down tends to leave you feeling more vulnerable, helpless and out of control.
Moreover, she says, when you’re constantly stuffing down anger or disappointment or hiding it from others, it’s hard for you to feel confident or be fully present and genuine in your relationships.
“It’s a really high cost,” Rosenberg says, “to distract from or disconnect from those unpleasant feelings.”
Emotions, Rosenberg explains, help us make sense of our experiences. Unpleasant feelings serve a protective purpose, such as the fear you get while walking near a cliff or the anger you feel when someone is mistreating you.
When we feel safe, our emotions are also important fuel for connection and creativity—something we often don’t consider when we’re pushing them away.
While we have no problem savoring joy, inspiration or a feeling of serenity, we quickly move to stifle some of our most unpleasant emotions such as sadness, shame, anger, embarrassment, frustration and disappointment, despite their ability to help us become more confident and strong when we can stay aware and in touch with the full range of emotions we feel.
If we could slow ourselves down by taking deep breaths and lean into the biochemical rush or bodily sensations that we call feelings, until this rush of biochemicals surging through our body dissipates (about 90 seconds later), we’d all be a lot clearer and more confident, Rosenberg argues.
That hot flush and rapid heartbeat you feel when you’re experiencing embarrassment or the downward pull in your chest when you’re sad actually begins to dissipate more quickly than you think, if you allow yourself to stay aware, ride the bodily sensation waves and move through the feeling.
Conversely, not processing these emotions can take a physical toll, Rosenberg says, from a weakened immune system to possible disease states much further down the road.
“A colleague of mine loves to say, ‘What doesn’t get emotionalized gets physicalized.’”
For example, someone who isn’t speaking up about something could begin to get a series of stomach aches or nausea. But once that person begins to talk about his or her feelings, some of those bodily symptoms begin to dissolve.
“What you think about, your patterns of thinking, and how you experience and express emotion, …” Rosenberg says, “all have a major effect on your immune functioning and your overall physical health and well-being.”
Living a life by design
Once you’re better in touch with your feelings and desires, it’s also easier to start building a life you love, Rosenberg says.
That starts with imagining what you’d like to see happen in your life. What’s on your bucket list? And just as important, who would you like to become?
Rosenberg suggests tackling change very gradually to build your confidence.
“What I usually tell the people I work with is that I want them to do the least amount possible that they know they can commit to and succeed at,” Rosenberg says.
For someone who is trying to create a habit of exercise, she says that might mean just 10 or 15 minutes of exercise each day rather than floundering through a series of boot camps. Once that person is successful with that first objective, he or she recalibrates, increasing the goal and commitment each time.
“As you hit that goal consistently, you start upping your game and you do it incrementally,” she says, continuing until you reach your over-arching goal.
For Rosenberg, the goal initially involved overcoming her shyness and learning to initiate so she could better connect with others, and later get her message of emotional mastery out to a larger audience.
“There was mental clutter or mental chatter in my head getting in the way” she says. “But the more I worked on myself and cleaned all that stuff up, the clearer I got.”
Photo credit: fizkes, Getty Images