Emotional First Aid: The Most Important Skill We’ve Never Learned
We all know to cover a cut with a bandage or brush our teeth to prevent cavities, but why is it that we’re not taught how to treat emotional pain, like loneliness or rejection? We know the basics of protecting our bodies, but what about our minds and hearts?
These are questions psychologist Guy Winch has been asking for years. In his book “Emotional First Aid: Healing Rejection, Guilt, Failure, and Other Everyday Hurts,” he makes a compelling case for practicing emotional hygiene—taking care of our emotions and our minds—with the same diligence we apply to taking care of our bodies.
“It’s time we closed the gap between our physical and our psychological health. It’s time we made them more equal,” he said, in a 2014 TED talk called “Why We All Need to Practice Emotional First Aid.”
In his talk, Winch describes the following common psychological injuries we sustain in everyday life and practical habits we can adopt to manage them.
Picture this: You go on a first date and 10 minutes into it, your date gets up and leaves, saying they’re not interested. How would you handle it? Many of us would be overcome with hurt, shame, rejection, and self-loathing. Our negative self-talk, Winch says, would probably go something like this: “I shouldn’t have said that. I’m so fat and ugly. I have nothing interesting to say. No wonder they rejected me.”
But Winch advocates the opposite approach. Self-compassion, he says, is the key to overcoming rejection. Instead of harshly criticizing ourselves and focusing on our faults, we should self-soothe in the same way we would console a friend. This helps build emotional resilience and gives us the strength to overcome the rejection—and even learn from it.
“Our self-esteem is already damaged and hurting. Why would we want to go and damage it even further?” he said, in the TED talk. “We wouldn’t make a physical injury worse on purpose … but we do that with psychological injuries all the time. Why? Because of poor emotional hygiene.”
In recent years, research has begun to uncover the profound mental, emotional, and physical damage of chronic loneliness. Some scientists have equated the damaging health effects of loneliness to that of heavy smoking. Loneliness is especially dangerous, says Winch, because it self-perpetuates by distorting our view of ourselves and others, leading us to further isolation.
Practicing good emotional hygiene, he explains, is paying attention to these pain signals, such as frequent feelings of loneliness or depression. Only by being aware of the cause of our emotional pain are we able to take steps to resolve it. “You can’t treat a psychological wound if you don’t even know you’re injured,” he said.
Rumination is obsessively replaying upsetting events in your head—over and over for hours, days, or even weeks on end. Often, we ruminate when we feel humiliated, insulted, scared, or angry. The urge to ruminate can be very strong, which exaggerates its importance and leads to the illusion that it’s necessary or useful. In reality, it can be highly damaging.
“By spending so much time focused on excessive or negative thoughts, you are actually putting yourself at significant risk for developing clinical depression, alcoholism, eating disorders, and even cardiovascular disease,” he said.
What can we do when we’re caught in a negative thought loop? Find a healthy distraction, Winch advises. Force yourself to think about or do something else. Studies say that even a two-minute distraction can break the urge to ruminate in that moment and help to build the habit of positive thinking.
How we manage failure is directly related to how we view ourselves, says Winch. Some people accept failure immediately as part of their identity. Some can go through a few frustrations or setbacks before they give up. Some can endure multiple failures and not be deterred because of their belief in themselves and their goals.
“If your mind tries to convince you [that] you’re incapable of something and you believe it, you’ll begin to feel helpless and you’ll stop trying too soon, or you won’t even try at all,” he said. “Then you’ll be even more convinced you can’t succeed. That’s why so many people function below their actual potential.”
The best way to build up self-esteem is to catch our unhealthy psychological bad habits and change them, says Winch. Allowing negative habits to thrive erodes our self-worth and our health.
“When your self-esteem is lower, you are more vulnerable to stress and to anxiety. Failures and rejections hurt more, and it takes longer to recover from them,” he said.
Be proactive by protecting your self-esteem with self-compassion. When you’re in emotional pain, treat yourself with the same kindness you would a close friend—and resist the urge to tear yourself down. Even if it doesn’t come naturally at first, emotional resilience is formed over time, built by every thought and decision we make.
“By taking action when you’re lonely, by changing your responses to failure, by protecting your self-esteem, by battling negative thinking, you won’t just heal your psychological wounds, you will build emotional resilience,” said Winch. “You will thrive.”