“Naming or labeling difficult emotions helps us disentangle or unstick from them.”
-Kristen Neff and Chris Germer
When it comes to failure and rejection there is a whole shit storm of emotion and feeling. It’s worth it to understand how greater society influences HOW we navigate emotion and how that might play into the experience of rejection and failure. Although our society has made progress we still very much view emotion as weak. Many people grow up in families that don’t talk about feelings at all. When it comes to failure and rejection, more often than not (particularly in sport) the message is to reflect, learn and then put your head down and get back to work. There is a time and place for that depending on the scenario, but this is missing a huge and MASSIVELY important part of how we process the emotion that comes with failure and rejection.
Processing emotion is hard. It’s uncomfortable and it can take time. But to be human means we will always have emotion.
The first step in processing emotion is getting really clear on what emotion is present. What are we actually feeling? I am aware that there are definitions for both emotions and feelings and that these are two different things. The premise of this piece is not to dive into that so I will use them interchangeably and as one in this series. To be fair, nobody really agrees how to define emotion.
Dr. Susan David, in her book Emotional Agility (2016) says that emotions are “the body’s immediate physical response to important signals from the outside world” (page 2). She is a firm believer that emotions are SIGNS and that these signs are telling us that something is up and we need to pay attention to them.
But research also shows that it is really important to get specific about these signs. There are several different theories about how many “basic emotions” there are and the fact that there are “primary” and “secondary” emotions. The main point here is that we need to get as specific as we can and label what our experience is because emotions and feelings are complex. The experience of feeling sad because we were rejected is completely different from the experience of feeling sad because we are isolated or alone. Not to mention the plethora of ruminating thoughts that may accompany either of those experiences that then evoke more or different emotions and feelings!
See the complexity?!
Marc Brackett, Ph.D. is one of the leading psychologists in the field of emotions. In his book Permission to Feel (2019) he describes the concept of “if we can label it we can tame it.” He states that if we can’t label our emotions “we can’t properly consider them or put them into perspective” (page 105). The cool thing is that we have research to show this. Brackett (2019) reveals that studies looking at the brain show that when we label our emotions the brain regions associated with emotional reactivity have lower levels of activation.
Brackett (2019) uses the term granularity to help us think about HOW we need to label. Granularity is when “we define what we feel as precisely and narrowly as words allow - down to the grains- rather than settle for generalized terms” (page 110). When we get precise and granular we are better able to emotionally regulate. In the words of Brene Brown in her recent book Atlas of the Heart (2021), “In my experience of working with clients, the ability to name this emotion or experience is essential to being able to process it in a productive and healing manner.”
Personally, I have found when I do this I am able to create some space around the emotion and this space is exactly what we are looking for when difficult emotions feel smothering. When we create space around our emotions we give ourselves a little more agency with how we respond and take care of ourselves. Getting clear is what enables us to then respond accordingly. We can’t attend to our experience and our pain if we don’t know what it is!
Being able to label how we are feeling also helps us to communicate this to others. As you will see soon, community and support from loved ones is often a huge part of how we cope with rejection and failure. If you can't understand what your experience is you are going to have a difficult time explaining it to your support system. This is important in order to get the HELP that we need.
So when it comes to rejection and failure we have to do exactly that. What are the emotions or layers underneath your rejection and failure? With my most recent experience it starts with sadness because feeling like you’ve been rejected sucks but it’s also a swirl of unworthiness, embarrassment, hurt and humiliation.
So how do we do this? Well here are a couple of strategies to help:
-Ask yourself plainly what emotion is underneath the failure / rejection?
-Journal about it daily
-Meditate on it
-Speak to a loved one or friend
-Track your daily mood and energy
-Write stories or start a blog
-Use Brene Brown’s Book Atlas of the Heart
-Seek out professional help (aka a licensed mental health professional)
The clearer you get on WHAT you are feeling the better. But we also need to know that just because we do this once, doesn’t mean it’s over. It’s a process and this process can take time. This has been a daily practice for me because when we face rejection and failure it stings. However, if we get clear and granular about what were feeling we can attend to it in the best way possible.