Recently, I had a minor but difficult surgical procedure to lance an abscess on my leg. It was very painful, and while I recovered physically pretty quickly, I had some Post -traumatic stress reactions—bad dreams, flashbacks, and upset—after my recovery. I had to acknowledge my upset and feelings, and let them out before the stress reactions subsided. I often help my clients do this, too, not only with PTSD from shocking or painful experiences, but also with grief and old memories.
Life is not easy, and we often encounter problems and difficulties that require us to pay attention to our own feelings. Relationships, too, whether with family, spouses and partners, friends or even colleagues, can create emotional fallout that we need to take care of.
In addition, if we want to maintain emotional health and balance; create as much happiness as possible in life; and maintain what the twelve-step programs call serenity, or inner peace; our emotions require care. I call this ongoing, routine care of feelings emotional hygiene.
Most of us learned things about bodily hygiene and health in school and at home, from our parents: wash behind your ears, brush and floss your teeth, wash your body and your hair on a regular basis; as well as washing your hands frequently to minimize your exposure to viruses and germs. Even eating well, sleeping and exercising can be considered part of hygiene – maintaining good health. To do this well, you do these healthy things on a regular basis – once in a while isn’t effective for creating good health.
Emotional hygiene is similar. Most of my clients are surprised to learn that their emotions, too, need daily care to maintain optimum balance. Just as a little showering, hand-washing and tooth-brushing can help you maintain physical health and well-being and reduce your time in the doctor and dentist’s office, emotional hygiene can help you maintain emotional well-being and reduce the need for therapy, prescriptions and stress-related problems.
Here are some of my recommendations for daily emotional hygiene:
- Meet yourself: Just checking in with yourself on a daily basis, knowing how you feel and what you think about whatever is going on in your life will make you happier, and reduce your stress. Being kind to yourself and having a good relationship with you will make all your relationships with other people go more smoothly. Whether you realize it or not, the relationship you have with yourself sets the pattern for how you connect with others. By developing a nurturing way to relate to yourself, you create a personal experience of both giving and receiving friendship. Knowing your feelings helps you make appropriate choices in every phase of your life. A big advantage of knowing who you are is knowing how to pamper and comfort yourself when you’re stressed or tired. Use what you have learned about your style to develop a style for recharging and relaxing. What makes you most comfortable? What soothes you? What helps you recharge? It can be anything from a bubble bath, a yoga session, or your favorite music to a long walk in the country, a phone conversation with your best friend, or a nap. Make a list of your favorite “personal rechargers”. Make sure the list includes simple things you can do cheaply (such as relax with a cup of tea and read a favorite book) to things that are very special (such as spend a day at a bed and breakfast or have a massage and a facial). Keep the list where you can refer to it whenever you feel in need of a recharge, and make use of it often.
Some people believe being a good friend to yourself is selfish, but you’ll discover that it’s really the opposite, because if you maintain your internal friendship, it becomes easier to be a good friend to others, and to recognize when others are good friends to you.
- Clear out resentment and bitterness: Clinging to resentment can be very destructive. Resentment comes from not wanting to take responsibility for yourself—you’ve been disappointed, but you don’t want to really acknowledge it, and you also don’t want to do the work of choosing a new goal, so you avoid it by wallowing in self-pity. If what happened to that you’re resenting mimics a previous trauma, or your worst nightmare (you’ve been betrayed—again!), you’re more likely to sink into bitterness. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy, and it feels like you’re doomed. It’s a mental mechanism keep you from having to grow up.
Here’s how to get over it.
1. Swear off guilt: Guilt is like time payments you can keep suffering forever. Instead, do the grieving you need to do, figure out how you helped create the problems (or stayed around for them) and decide to change what didn’t work before. Grieve all you need, but don’t exaggerate your feelings.
2. Don’t assign blame: If you blame someone else, you’ll eventually turn that blame on yourself. So, instead of blaming, find some more neutral things to say "We saw things differently" “I gave it my best shot, but it didn’t work.”
3. Focus on re-building your life. Resentment is not practical it’s a negative fantasy. Focus on the practical things you need to do and think. Get your emotional, personal and financial life together as soon as you can. Think about all the things you’ve been freed up to do, and do some of them. Try things you would never have done before, or things you’ve always wanted to do. As Gatsby said "Living well is the best revenge." Use the energy from your anger and grief, and channel them into doing things just for you. Try out for that local theater, take dancing lessons or an art class, learn to scuba dive, get a pet, or plant a garden. All of those things will keep you focused on the present and the future, instead of the past.
- Maintain your happiness: Doing what you can to bring as much happiness as possible to yourself and others. Being happy is undeniably good for you—the endorphins it releases reduce stress and pain, and boost your health and immune system. Not to mention make you glad to be alive and pleasant to be around.
There are three things you can do to create more happiness in your life:
1. Gratitude: Remember to notice and be thankful for whatever you have, what your friends, family and partner do for and give to you.
2. Generosity: Giving to others, especially giving thanks and kindness will make you happy, because most others will give back.
3. Ethics: Living your life according to a set of ethics that make sense to you will make you feel good about yourself, and increase your happiness.
- Set aside regular time for yourself: Me time is important for nurturing your relationship with yourself. It is proof that you care about yourself, just as when your friend or partner spends time with you, you feel cared about. Take it as seriously as your business appointments or dates with other people you love. Every Thursday, I go swimming at the gym, then take myself out for a healthy lunch at a favorite restaurant. I almost never skip this, and I don’t invite anyone to join me. It’s my time for me, and it helps me stay on an even keel.
- Spend time with people you love: Being with people you care about and who care about you is a great way to affirm your value as a person, and to confirm that your life has meaning and purpose. Make sure you take good care of your friendship and family relationships. It’s a great way to take care of you.
Emotional maintenance means thinking about emotional health and staying in touch with your feelings. When I watch clients begin to focus on emotional hygiene hope and energy are created. I wish hope and renewed energy for you.
Tina B. Tessina, Ph.D., "Dr. Romance," is a licensed psychotherapist in private practice in Long Beach, Calif. since 1978 and author of 13 books in 17 languages, including The Unofficial Guide to Dating Again and Lovestyles: How to Celebrate Your Differences. She publishes the Happiness Tips from Tina email newsletter, and the Dr. Romance Blog. She has written for and been interviewed in many national publications, and she has appeared on Oprah, Larry King Live and many other TV and radio shows.