Practice emotional first aid to deal with rejection, failure, guilt and loss, and improve your mental health.
If you cut your finger while cooking, you would immediately clean the wound and apply a bandage. So why don’t we use first aid for our mental health?
Anyone who felt rejected, lonely or suffered the loss of a loved one knows that emotional injuries can be just as painful as physical ones.
Psychologist Guy Winch, author of Emotional First Aid, recommends 7 ways to practice emotional first aid.
1. First, know to recognize when you are in emotional pain and treat it before it gets worse. These are the common psychological injuries:
- Rejection: by friends, partners, employers…
- Failure: when we don’t reach our goals or make mistakes…
- Loneliness: living abroad make us even more prone to loneliness but you can also feel lonely in your own home if you don’t feel connected to others.
- Loss: when relatives pass away, a friend moves out of town. How we rebuild ourselves determine if we become emotionally stronger or weaker.
- Brooding or Rumination: you keep having sad or angry feelings and find it difficult to think of anything else. But doing so doesn’t allow them to heal.
- Guilt: Moderate guilt is normal but when it makes it difficult for us to concentrate on our work and responsibilities then it’s time to act.
- Low Self-Esteem: this is also normal to feel low and critical about ourselves sometimes but if we always feel like this it’s like having a weak immune system: it makes us more vulnerable and more likely to sustain further psychological injury.
Just like physical diseases, emotional injuries get worse if they are not treated. Untreated rejection for example can cause a low self-esteem, which can make us be defensive and push people away, which can makes us become more lonely at which point we find ourselves ruminating about how our friends have stopped caring about us, which can lead to a full depression.
2. Regain control after a failure. Failures make our goals seem even more out of reach and lower our self-esteem and confidence.
Once we feel that we cannot succeed, we become demoralized and lose our motivation. Instead, make a list of what was in your control: effort, planning, alternatives you could have taken, etc. It will help your fight against misperceptions and improve your chances to succeed in the future.
3. Protect your self-esteem as you would protect your own child from aggression. Self-esteem is like an emotional immune system that protects you from depression.
It is very important to monitor it and avoid putting yourself down, particularly when you are already in pain after a failure or a rejection. Many of us become self-critical in these situations, kicking our self-esteem when we are already down. Don’t make it harder than it is already! You are only adding pain to pain…
When you’re feeling critical of yourself, imagine a dear friend or your own child is feeling bad about him or herself for similar reasons and write a letter expressing your support. Then read the letter to yourself.
To revive your self-worth after a rejection, you can also make a list of your positive qualities that you value and read them to yourself.
4. Break the cycle of brooding and ruminating negative thoughts with positive distraction. Negative only brings negative. When you keep having negative thoughts, it only leads you to deeper pain.
To stop ruminating, ask yourself this question: “Can I do something about it?”. If yes, then do it. If no, distract yourself to stop thinking of it. The best way is to engage in a task that requires concentration (like doing a breathing exercise, recalling the names of the children in your school for example or completing a crossword). Studies shows that only two minutes of distraction will reduce the need to have these negative thoughts (it’s true as well if you are trying to stop yourself from eating chocolate by the way – all our urges reduce dramatically after 2 minutes).
5. Find meaning in loss.
Loss is a part of life, but it can keep us from moving forward if we don’t treat the emotional pain it creates.
Know the “normal cycle” of loss that psychologists have defined: 1. Denial and isolation; 2. Anger; 3. Bargaining; 4. Sadness and Depression; 5. Acceptance. Read more about it here: the 5 stages of loss and grief.
If a lot of time has passed and you still can’t move forward, try to find meaning in the loss. It might be hard, but think of what you might have gained or understood from the loss (for instance, “I lost my husband but I’ve become much closer to my kids”). Think of how you can help others to appreciate life more, and the changes you can make in your own life to live more fully.
6. Avoid excessive guilt by repairing damaged relationships
We feel guilty when our action or inactions have hurt another person (often a friend or loved one) who has not forgiven us.
Often our apologies are not “good enough” for the other person to “let it go”. Apologies require “empathy”. The other person must feel that you totally understand how they felt and how they were badly impacted by you. (Read more about making effective apologies here).
7. Don’t think loneliness is your fate.
Loneliness is much more common then we realize – especially when living abroad as a migrant domestic worker. It has a negative impact on our emotional and physical health. The worse is that when we feel lonely, we often want to minimize the risk of rejection by ignoring opportunities to connect with people.
Make a list of excuses you’ve used to avoid taking initiative —I won’t know anyone so why go?; They don’t call me so why should I call them?; They’re probably too busy to meet up; I can’t just introduce myself to a stranger.
If this is not you, but your employer who doesn’t allow you to go out on your days off or calling friends or relatives outside of your working hours, look immediately for help from a NGO like Home in Singapore or Help in Hong Kong. This is not normal and it put yourself in a very vulnerable situation.
Now make a list of people whose company you’ve enjoyed in the past (go through your phone book, Facebook friends, and Email contacts) and reach out to one or two each day to initiate plans until your social calendar is full. Challenge yourself to avoid using excuses when you feel anxious.
“Mostly, get into the habit of taking note of your psychological health on a regular basis — and especially after a stressful, difficult, or emotionally painful situation. Yes, practicing emotional hygiene takes a little time and effort, but it will seriously elevate your entire quality of life. I promise.” Guy Winch
You can also watch this Ted Talk by Psychologist Guy Winch where he explains how he practices emotional first aid for himself.
And read this story about dealing with emotions
The old woman at the door – Listen to your emotions as painful as they can be and then let them go
Winch, G. (2014). Emotional First Aid: Healing Rejection, Guilt, Failure and Other Everyday Hurts. New York: Plume – Penguin Group.