Navigating Complex Emotions No One Told You How to Handle in a Healthy Way

Navigating complex emotions like sadness, grief, loss, hurt, disappointment, melancholy, anguish, fear, anger, sorrow, just to name a few is extremely challenging... especially when no one taught you how to. It's important to remember that healing is a process, and it's okay to experience these emotions. Here's a step-by-step guide to help you navigate them.

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Let’s make sure we mention the fact that navigating complex emotions becomes exponentially more challenging when you were never taught how to do so in a (keyword) healthy way (also known in the clinical world as “adaptively”). Complex emotions affect not only us every single day, but also our friends, family, and colleagues. Unfortunately, how we cope with them is one of the biggest epidemics in the world, contributing to massive amounts of disease, mental illnesses, and other life-threatening issues. So where do we begin?

Before even diving into the nitty-gritty, I want to encourage you to take a moment to pause and recognize that you’re not alone if you’re struggling to navigate complex emotions. Not to mention are you not the only one struggling to do so in a healthy, adaptive way that serves you. Often, it isn’t until high school that mental health and mental health awareness is brought into the fold and focus of any curriculum, and for many of us, such was NEVER even remotely mentioned in a non-pathological way when we were growing up.

So, with that said, I encourage you to give yourself that permission slip the large majority of humans need when it comes to navigating these complex and challenging waters. Permission to celebrate yourself, now that you’re here. This stuff can get overwhelming, and it can be really hard. And before you read that again, let me tell you how worth it this work is not only for you but for your future version of yourself and if you have children, for their future too. 

Trust that you’re in the right place to help add one more tool to your metaphorical emotional toolbelt to help you navigate and perhaps overcome the unique situation you’re growing and evolving through right now.

Through this article, I’m going to share some real-world examples we’ve seen emerging in our research lab and in clinical settings. These are real people with real challenges, real complex emotions, and real progress. Though their names have been changed to protect their privacy and identities, we hope that their courage can help to inspire your own. We hope sharing them will help you feel seen, heard, and not alone because the fabric of their stories most certainly will illuminate a thread in your unique experience, or one you’re perhaps headed towards. However, if you’re just here for the pie n’ pudding, feel free to scroll to the bottom where those 15 steps are laid out before you to take and run with. No shame in that game – we are all for action.

Meet Cambron. Cambron went through the extremely difficult waters of facing the compound effect of his people-pleasing tendencies and where they’d come from. As a business owner, someone who was coming up on what many refer to as the “mid-life crises,” he had the humility to face the hard truths that he saw popping up everywhere. What he was trying to do in his world was to his standards “kind of working,” but there were several areas of his life that just seemed to never work. Not only were the odds against his values from an industry perspective, but he was also in the worst business for someone who wanted the change he did because of how toxic the environment for change was at a systemic level. His frustration would build relentless stress, increasing overwhelm and consistent burnout which throughout the majority of his life became his version of “normal” because at the end of the day – the business, his health, and his life, were all on him. Out of significant distrust of others, he made sure of it, too, even taking pride in the fact that he could run his business all by himself if he wanted or ever needed to. Fulfillment was a word that hadn’t crossed his mind, and his suffering came through the challenges that customers would bring with them through the door or those that he created as a result of his inability to navigate the complexities of tough emotions.

Like many, Cambron had experienced several traumas, had struggled with anxiety, and states of depression, and would have a hard time justifying getting himself what was needed to meet his own basic needs, often failing to get good sleep, nutrition, and exercise. He placed all of his significance in his work, and with his entire identity rolled into its day-to-day operations, he learned some tough news that shattered the way he saw himself. His suppressed memories from trauma came back, which flooded the seemingly off-line emotional centers that he was taught from a very young age don’t exist because well, of course, “men don’t have feelings,” (by the way, I say this half-joking because this is a well-known BS narrative supported by emotionally immature people that is extremely destructive) and as a result, for the very first time realized he’d been suppressing emotions his entire life, and because no one had ever taught him how to express them adaptively, what he would experience instead would always be him boiling over into either anger, sadness, or frustration, often negatively impacting his relationships.

Cambron struggled to be seen, be heard, and accept people who desired deep connections because he was always good at connecting to others while chameleonizing himself to whatever room he got into, but deeply resisted being connected out of fear of being vulnerable. He struggled with relationships and developed a belief about himself that he was an unlovable guy, further encouraging his solitude, work rigidity, unreasonably high expectations, emotional dungeons, and 0 to 100 mood swings. Due to his consistent hardships, he would experience deep feelings of sorrow, without any understanding as to why or where it came from which left him feeling deeply unhappy and often flooded with sadness. Eventually, he sought professional support from Evolve and he has since learned how to identify, articulate, and navigate his complex emotions, using the ten steps below again and again. He now swears by the “Wheel of Emotions” (see image below) as a life-long tool, and has since become a leader for others, encouraging safe spaces to navigate the really hard truths, the uncomfortable conversations, the really difficult parts of life and is an ongoing advocate to navigating complex emotions.

Though Cambron has an epic story in his own right, his progress started small, just like yours will. It started with the permission slip to learn, get vulnerable with oneself, and have the courage to sit in the discomfort that washes over you as you navigate.

Unfortunately, many of us first have to work through the feelings of guilt or shame that come up when we realize we might not know how to navigate our own complex emotions. We were never taught how to separate our own identities from our behaviors. Many of us, see them as the same exact thing, inseparable. Though, there’s often a “should statement” that’s an inner voice in a drill sergeant manner telling us we “should’ve known better,” or that we “should know how to move through this.” For Cambron, it was that he should’ve been able “to figure it out,” which seems fair only if he had the skills and capabilities to do so. But unfortunately, like many of us, he didn’t, of course until he found Evolve.

Before we get into the dialogue of emotions (e = energy in motion), I want to start by saying that no emotion is a “bad” one. We at Evolve deeply believe all emotions are messengers. Each one contains loads of information that are all worth tuning into and being heard. Though some might feel better than others when they wash over us #EmotionalFlooding, and others might make us feel like a hot tea kettle, they all serve a purpose and I believe it’s our duty, our responsibility, our obligation we have to ourselves to listen, process, and treat them with care so that they can put the energy in motion they’re here to see be created.

To date, if you’ve been categorizing emotions in that binary code language, it’s time to upgrade your emotional lingo for your aid, and moving forward, begin to place emotions on a scale valance which is essentially a fancy word to determine the level of pleasantness vs. unpleasantness, not good or bad. This allows you to feel more of a spectrum of your emotions, and label them according to the degree of pleasantness (“valence”) they have as you experience them. From there, we’ll see where they fall on the spectrum of “arousal” or, intensity level. See the image below for what I mean.

So! Let’s talk about the first two interestingly complex emotions we all experience by being human. If these two ignite some discomfort in you, that’s normal, this is why Brené Brown’s work is getting a lot of attention, number one because no one likes to talk about it – yet we all experience it, and number two, because of number one we all either work through that discomfort and evolve or we don’t and stay stuck. Let’s lean towards evolving, eh?

Guilt and shame are related emotions, but they are distinct in several key ways according to Brown’s grounded theory research. Here’s the scoop on the primary differences between the two:

Guilt:

  1. Guilt is primarily focused on behavior. It arises when a person believes they have done something wrong or violated their own moral or ethical code. It is often accompanied by the feeling of remorse or regret for a specific action or behavior.
  2. Guilt tends to be more adaptive and can lead to constructive actions, such as making amends, apologizing, or taking steps to rectify the situation.
  3. It is associated with a desire to repair the harm caused and can promote personal growth and change.

Shame:

  1. Shame is focused on the self. It is a deeply painful and pervasive feeling of inadequacy, worthlessness, or being fundamentally flawed as a person. Unlike guilt, shame is not necessarily tied to a specific action or behavior; it is more about a negative perception of the self.
  2. Shame tends to be less constructive and can lead to destructive behaviors, such as withdrawal, avoidance, or hiding one’s true self from others.
  3. It is associated with a fear of rejection or disconnection from others, which can further isolate an individual.

To be straightforward, guilt is related to feeling bad about a specific action or behavior and is often associated with a desire for positive change and self-improvement. At Evolve, we believe that there’s so much untapped power within the frame of guilt-riddled experiences. In contrast, shame is a more intense and (*key word here*) self-focused emotion that involves a negative view of one’s entire self, at an identity level, often leading to negative consequences and disconnection from others.

Brené Brown’s research has emphasized the importance of recognizing and addressing shame to cultivate resilience and vulnerability, as well as to build healthier and more authentic connections with others. She encourages individuals to move from a place of shame to a place of empathy and self-compassion to lead more fulfilling lives, and at Evolve, we know how possible that is for all of us when we learn to navigate some of these more complex emotions.

Now that we’ve gone through some of the “big two” it is incredibly important to understand the differences between them and give ourselves the permission slip to experience them. As we do so, we can begin to create space for ourselves to understand the nuanced differences between some of those other more complex emotions that very few (if any) people ever talk about.

Given where you are right now in your life, I want you to ask yourself which of these complex emotions might you be experiencing. If we leave it to the “I don’t know,” statements that so often float in our consciousness when it comes to our emotional articulation and identifying what emotion it truly is that we’re feeling, we are leaving ourselves quite frankly in the dark. What we don’t know, our brains fear, and what we fear, we often stay far away from. Don’t let right now be that moment for you. This is that moment to lean in and help yourself navigate through. I strongly encourage you to choose one of the seven listed below, the one that closest resembles your experience. When you do this, you can put a label closer to your experience, and when this happens the unconscious fear settles down, our central nervous systems can begin to relax, and like revisiting your old hometown after you’ve been away for years, you can proceed with caution AND curiosity.

  • Grief: Grief is a deep and intense emotional response typically triggered by the loss of someone or something important to us. It involves a range of feelings, including sadness, longing, and often a sense of emptiness. This article goes way more into depth on this emotion, if you’re curious.
  • Sorrow: Sorrow is a feeling of deep sadness or unhappiness, often related to a specific event or circumstance. It is a profound emotional response to loss or hardship.
  • Anguish: Anguish is a state of extreme emotional pain or suffering, often accompanied by a sense of hopelessness or despair. It can result from a variety of situations, including personal loss or trauma.
  • Anger: Anger is an intense emotional response to perceived threats, injustice, or frustration. It can manifest as feelings of irritation, frustration, or even rage.
  • Fear: Fear is an emotional response to a perceived threat or danger. It triggers a “fight or flight” reaction in the body and can vary in intensity from mild unease to extreme terror.
  • Melancholy: Melancholy is a state of prolonged sadness or a feeling of pensive sadness and reflection. It often involves a sense of nostalgia or a longing for something unattainable.
  • Disappointment: Disappointment is the emotional response to unmet expectations or the realization that something did not turn out as hoped or anticipated. It can range from mild disappointment to deep discouragement.

While these emotions may have some overlapping qualities, they are distinct in their triggers, intensity, and emotional experiences. People may also experience a combination of these emotions in response to different life events or circumstances. It’s important to note that emotions are complex and can vary greatly from person to person. Oftentimes, we experience multiple emotions at the same time. This is what we commonly refer to in session as “dualities” or, what I’ve referred to in the podcast as “trialities,” where multiple emotions try to fight for the metaphorical microphone of your attention and then we cope from there, based on our training.

That said, now that we’ve learned a little about Cambron, we’ve understood that progress is possible, but that it takes intentional focused care, attention, and effort to navigate through some of these complex emotions, and honestly, it doesn’t just happen once. We are a multi-layered species, with multiple streams of consciousness. We are simple and complex and it is a profound scientific fact that you have gotten where you are today, given what you’ve gotten through, and now it’s time you navigate the complex emotions no one ever taught you how to do in a healthy, evolved way.

Below, are those fifteen steps, we encourage you to take as you navigate complex emotions. Save this article to come back to later, or book a free call to review with a trusted coach.

1. Acknowledge Your Emotions:

   – Understand that it’s normal to feel a wide range of emotions after a tough experience.

   – Allow yourself to feel without judgment. Don’t suppress or deny your feelings. None of them should be going on the back burner, getting boxed up, swept under the rug, or avoided. This will just cause more issues for you down the road, and spill out in unsavory ways. 

2. Find a Support System:

   – Reach out to friends and family who can offer emotional support.

   – Consider talking to a trusted therapist, coach, or counselor if you’re struggling to cope on your own accord, or if your emotions seem to just be all over the place, hard to handle, discern, unlayer, etc. Don’t worry, we’ve seen it all.

3. Self-Compassion:

   – Be kind to yourself. Understand that it’s okay not to be okay. This is critical to the release of judgment which often gets us stuck and spiraling.

   – Avoid self-blame and negative self-talk. Remember, more often than not, what you’re going through has been a two-way street.

4. Journal Your Thoughts:

   – Writing down your thoughts and current level of awareness of your feelings and bodily sensations can help you process and make sense of them either in the moment or when you share them with a trusted confidant. 

   – Reflect on the experience, your feelings, and your goals for the future, even if it’s to navigate more healthily for you… this chapter.

5. Practice Mindfulness and Relaxation Techniques:

   – Engage in activities that promote relaxation, restoration, and healthy types of relief-driven release such as meditation, deep breathing, or yoga.

   – Mindfulness can help you stay grounded in the present moment and reduce anxiety for what future you might have lurking ahead of you, or what terrorizing past your memories have access to.

6. Stay Active and Healthy:

   – Maintain a regular exercise routine to boost your mood and reduce stress. Keep the focal point on exercise-based movement. Relax the rigidity initially, and any drill-sergeant inner dialogue concerning the standards around this. Movement is what matters, not necessarily the how… yet!

   – Eat nutritious meals, get enough sleep, and avoid excessive alcohol or substance use. Big emphasis on doing the things that can improve your sleep. When your brain is happy and you’re sleep is getting better, more often than not will you have a better chance at (and have the willpower for) improving everything else that you’ll need to continue putting that metaphorical oxygen mask on yourself first.

7. Limit Contact and Reminders:

   – Consider temporarily limiting exposure to the trigger of this complex emotion.

   – Put away items that might remind you of the source of the trigger of your complex emotion (if possible) for a little while, as you work through the difficult feelings and their many layers. 

8. Set Boundaries:

   – Establish clear boundaries with any person involved in triggering your experience with the complex emotions, because sometimes it is these boundaries that enable you the permission slip to give yourself space to navigate and heal.

   – Communicate your needs and expectations to avoid unnecessary emotional turmoil to those who might be impacted by your efforts (for example with your partner, your children, your colleagues, etc.)

9. Seek Closure (if needed):

   – Closure can be helpful, but it may not always come in the form, of the person you most expect it. 

   – Find closure within yourself by accepting what you’re going through and are growing through. Sometimes only you can give that to yourself and making space for that is important too. There will be another chapter, and you will get through this one.

10. Create a Post-Navigation Routine:

    – Develop a new daily routine that includes activities you enjoy and that promote personal growth, levels of improved health, and well-being.

    – Focus on your interests and hobbies, and cultivate time in your calendar for adaptive coping and processing the emotions that will likely come up as you navigate your new normal.

11. Set Goals and Look Forward:

    – Identify short-term and long-term goals for your life outside of this experience.

    – Visualize a positive future for yourself, and identify one small action you can take to become that person, by acting in a small way today.

12. Express Your Emotions Creatively:

    – Use art, music, or other creative outlets to express your emotions.

    – This can be a therapeutic way to process your feelings and help you navigate the complexities that sometimes words and processing out loud don’t have the depth to work through. Some of the best art in the world comes from this!

13. Join Support Groups and Online Communities:

    – Connect with others who have experienced similar situations. Evolve Ventures Society, and all of the support Evolve offers is to help people just like you get around others who have grown through and evolved through tough times.

    – Sharing your story and listening to others can provide comfort and validation. DM us if you want to share your story, because doing so can offer the relief and restoration that others have felt in being able to look backward after their unique navigation. Check out some of the brave souls who’ve shared their stories on Evolve Ventures Society and let their words inspire you to lean into your own, no two are the same!

14. Professional Support:

    – If you find it difficult to cope or if your emotions become overwhelming, don’t hesitate to seek professional coaching, therapy, or counseling. Oftentimes, it’s in these 1:1 calls where I find clients have the biggest progress. That, and second to that time together, it’s the homework and processing in between that enables people just like you to navigate the most complex of emotions.

    – Don’t wait until it’s unbearable. Often, those who do have a harder time navigating through the more complex emotions than those who bring themselves to help sooner. We talked about when to reach out for help in our podcasts (in episode #146), too, because often this is an afterthought that we hope to encourage more people to be proactive about. Your emotional health matters!!!

15. Give Yourself Time:

    – Healing from emotional complexities is not a linear process; it takes time – just like the graphic depicting the process of grief’s reality vs. how we want it to work… every complex emotion will be a multi-faceted, non-linear process. Patience truly is a virtue and one of the kindest components of your journey.

    – Be patient with yourself and allow your emotions to evolve naturally. They will if you give them that grace.

Remember that working through and healing some of these complex emotions is a personal journey, and everyone’s timeline, approach, and process is different. It is without question though, essential to prioritize your self-care, seek support, and trust that, over time, the intensity of your emotions will subside, allowing you to move forward with your life. Yes, emotions can come in cycles, and yes you may feel this again. Not only is it possible, but it is likely, considering we are creatures of habit and our thinking patterns towards a situation are often what constructs our emotions and how we feel towards it.

Don’t wait, connect with us so that you can finally work through in a healthy way some of the most complex emotions life has to offer. We would adore helping you to navigate some of the most perplexing waters of life.

We hope you take the time to let this sink in, honor yourself, and let us support you in that journey.

DM, book a FREE call or email me and let us know how it goes.

Love & light,

-Emilia

@EvolvewithEmili

Emilia@EvolveVenturesTech.com

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