When it comes to money, we all understand the concept of debt. If you spend more than you have, at some point, you’re going to have to pay it back, with interest.
But what about emotions?
What happens when you spend more energy than you have by trying to push your emotions away through busyness and distraction?
The answer: you take on “emotional debt."
We noticed this happening in our marriage a couple months ago. We were both navigating intense situations that gave rise to intense emotions. And yet we were both crazy busy with other work and life commitments.
So, instead of feeling these emotions and allowing them to integrate, we got caught up in a cycle of work and distraction.
Eventually, the work sprint ended. We both slowed down a bit. And that’s when we had to face our emotional debt. We finally had to feel those emotions we had been pushing away.
And that’s how it works. We think that we can avoid these challenging emotions by working more, exercising more, watching Netflix more, eating more, or Instagram surfing more, but the relief we get is only temporary. Eventually, we have to pay back this emotional debt. Eventually, we have to feel again because, if we don't, life has a way of forcing us to slow down and listen (upping the ante for feeling with things like accidents, illnesses, burnout, etc.).
So how can you pay off your emotional debt?
Over-spending is to financial debt as busyness is to emotional debt. It’s the force that pushes us deeper into a deficit.
So the first step in paying off emotional debt is to give yourself permission to interrupt the busyness and slow down. This can be difficult to do because, even when we "take a break," we often simply replace one form of busyness with another.
For instance, we might take a day off work but then find ourselves busy doing random house projects or getting lost in mindless doom scrolling.
So give yourself a weekend, a day, or even just a couple hours to actually slow down and feel (see next tool). Turn off your devices and give your mind some time to breathe.
Emotions like anger, shame, fear, and sadness don’t usually feel good, which is why we instinctively distract ourselves from feeling them.
But something amazing happens when we break this habit. When we turn toward, instead of away, from these feelings, we learn that we can make friends with these uncomfortable states. And that's when these powerful emotions begin to lose their grip over us.
To do this, shift your attention from the time-traveling thoughts in your head to the sensations happening in your body. Locate the predominant sensation of anger, fear, or sadness in your body.
Then notice how this direct experience of the emotion always changes. Just as soon as new sensations arise, they begin to fall away. Emotions, like life, are an experience of impermanence. Realizing this fact alone can loosen their grip over us.
Sometimes, we can surf these inner waves of emotion and integrate them on our own. But, sometimes, they’re too big to surf alone. Sometimes, we need the help of a skilled therapist or coach.
So if you feel overwhelmed by these emotions and unable to stay present with them or if you can't seem to process them alone, find someone to support you.
Asking for help and admitting that you can’t do it alone is often a breakthrough moment in itself. It's the first step to opening the door to inner growth and to finally paying off some of your emotional debt.