What are toxic emotions, and how do they prevent healing and moving forward? Toxic emotions are negative feelings that manifest within our bodies, minds and spirit. They become harmful when they lead us into a victim state, from which it can be challenging to get out and can cause mental and physical harm. Learning to control certain emotions is imperative, especially when moving on from divorce and other traumas to create a new and happy life.
The most common negative emotions associated with trauma and difficult life situations are fear, anger, guilt, and sadness/grief. Experiencing these or other negative emotions is normal in most cases. For example, divorce is comparable to a death, and there is a significant separation between the "we" of the partnership and the new "me." We had entwined our lives with one another, including dreams and a future, so when suddenly one is no longer part of a "we," it can be traumatic and lead to toxic emotions. Similarly, any time we feel down, negative or unhappy in life, toxic emotions can keep us stuck and unable to heal. The lesson is to prevent the feelings from becoming toxic.
Since it is normal to experience negative emotions about trauma or difficult life events, the first rule of thumb is to let yourself feel them, whatever they may be. Grieve, feel angry, sad, hurt, afraid, guilty or lost…these feelings must be recognized. You might cry, punch a pillow, exercise hard, scream or whatever non-dangerous release helps to relieve tension caused by these feelings. If the feelings are dangerous, cause you to feel so helpless that you cannot function, or have thoughts of hurting yourself or another or of ending your life, you must seek professional help immediately.
At some point – a time that can be different for each person – you must let go of these feelings and move forward.
This is one of the biggest emotions suffered by those going through trauma. It can also plague those who face difficult times, like losing a job or a home or the death of a loved one. Worrying about what a new life will look like post-trauma is easy. Where will you live? How will you pay the bills? In the case of divorce, a stay-at-home parent may have to return to the workforce for the first time in years, which is scary.
Being alone is also scary — who will care for you when you are sick or need help? What about parenting responsibilities, the desire to ease the effects of divorce on children and coming up with a plan to co-parent amicably? There is also a fear of being alone for the rest of one's life (this is especially true with women and even has a name).
No matter what the trauma or life circumstance that leads to toxic emotions, when we feel afraid and stuck, it actually prevents us from being able to heal, and the longer we nurse this fear within our bodies, minds and spirits, the more troubles we may suffer, both physically and mentally. You may recall a time in your life (even childhood) when you were so afraid of something or someone that you got a stomachache or experienced other forms of stress — imagine what can happen over time when we let fear fester – it's like an open wound that does not get cleaned and treated.
Anger is another common emotion experienced by those who experience trauma and big life changes. Since many people do not understand how to start the healing process, blaming others or the universe for their fate becomes easier. With divorce, many will blame the former spouse rather than start looking within for the answers. Blaming equates to a refusal to take responsibility for the self and one's own happiness, leading to stagnation and the inability to heal and be happy.
Anger zaps our energy, and it can lead us to a victim state. In this state, we believe everything happens to us instead of realizing we are the only ones who have control over our own lives, we become incapable of taking the reins and turning our lives around. Angry emotions can elevate blood pressure and lead to a plethora of physical and mental/emotional ailments, like poor focus and lack of energy, bodily pains and depression, rapid weight gain or loss, the desire to hurt oneself or others, extreme exhaustion, and lack of motivation, to name a few. This is not the way to heal or be happy.
Many traumas or difficult situations can lead to feelings of guilt. Divorce is one example, especially when we have been programmed to believe it is wrong or bad and that marriage lasts forever. Many have grown up with these messages from religion, culture or familial beliefs. Sometimes, we may not even recognize that what we have been taught, often throughout our lives, has a limiting effect on our thoughts.
Guilt is normal when it comes to divorce, and it is important to let oneself feel it and recognize from where it comes so that we can change our mindset and accept that those lessons we were taught are not reality. This usually involves diving deep into the past, especially childhood traumas.
When feeling guilty for being the "cause" of a trauma or major life change, that mindset must be examined and altered. Using divorce as an example, a marriage is a partnership, and even if one of the parties does things that do not support the marriage, there are still two people involved; both parties need to be working together in the relationship – all the time. Most marriages break down long before divorce is filed; one study indicated that the time frame is six years.
Other situations and traumas can also lead to feelings of guilt, such as physical and verbal abuse. Many victims of abuse feel that they must have done something wrong to trigger the abusive behavior that is directed toward them, and this, along with fear (of retaliation, of being alone, of the partner going to prison, etc.), is the reason that many victims of abusive relationships do not leave.
Sadness and grief
These are the most common toxic emotions regarding trauma, loss and big life changes. For example, it is normal to feel sad and grieve the death of a marriage or a loved one. Embarking upon the healing journey will alleviate these feelings. Although they never go away completely, they will dissipate with healing, and it is possible to create a new life and be happy despite the circumstances or changes.
Preventing negative feelings from becoming toxic is within our control, and we can learn how to overcome the barriers. Each step has many subparts that may require help from a divorce coach or therapist.
Steps to overcome negativity and toxicity to focus on healing
- Let go of people, ideas and situations that don't serve you
- Get healthy – body, mind and spirit (healthy eating, exercise, breathwork, journaling, spending time in nature).
- Express gratitude (especially when you awaken and before bed. Think of at least 3-5 things for which you are grateful)
- Try something new by getting out of your comfort zone (take a class, volunteer, learn something – outside of the house, not from a computer)
- Focus on the present, not the past — the past is over, and nothing can be done to change it, so don't waste energy on how it could have been if only…
- Replace negative thoughts and actions with positive ones, repeating until it becomes the norm – start telling yourself you are what you want to be by using affirmations, journaling, meditation and doing activities that make you happy; we are what we believe ourselves to be!
- Evaluate your support network and make sure you have the right people – many of those within our support networks do not truly support us. Those who love you need to respect your choices and not try to tell you what they think you should or shouldn't do.