Getting emotionally fit

I’m focusing this month on emotional fitness, in part, because I’m feeling particularly grateful right now for my own emotional fitness — hello, stable emotional state and relative mental health. It’s been a while….

As always, it’s important to say, repeat, and yell again that the divisions we use to differentiate between emotional, physical, and mental fitness aren’t real. But it’s helpful sometimes to talk about them as if they are separate, so that we can focus our thinking and maybe learn something that would have been harder to grasp without those artificial divides.

So, let’s get emotionally fit!

Step one: Knowledge. You need to know what you’re feeling. Not what you think you should be feeling, not what someone else wants you to be feeling, not what you wish you were feeling. I want you to know what you’re actually feeling right now, at this moment. Then, if and when applicable, you need to be able to say it. I just experienced this — when my joints are cold, they hurt. When I hurt more than usual, I feel angry. When Pyung Kwahn Jahng Nim is trying to be helpful and kind and I’m snapping at him in anger, it’s important for me to be able to say that I’m in pain and angry about and because of that, not at or because of him. And as I mature emotionally, I want to be able to feel that anger, know and acknowledge it, but not use it or allow it to affect my behavior (I’m a work in progress on that one).

Step two: Stretching. Like your physical workout, you need to work on flexibility as part of your emotional exercise. Most kids get ample opportunity to practice emotional flexibility — they are in situations not of their choosing, with people they may or may not know or like, doing things they aren’t good at or that they even understand the import of all the time. One benefit of being a newer human is that things around you are much more often new to you — adults control their environments far more than children do, and they aren’t constantly dealing with new experiences, so they can tend towards a lower emotional flexibility than their newer counterparts.

So if you’re an adult (or a child living a charmed and very privileged life), you have to go looking for opportunities to practice emotional flexibility. We talk about getting out of our comfort zones — putting ourselves deliberately into situations that involve new experiences, new people, or things we know we usually avoid. These are great experiences for getting more emotionally flexible. If you try something that you know is going to challenge your feelings, you’re getting a good emotional workout. And when you have, remember that you did it, you survived, and you can use that knowledge to give yourself the courage to keep doing things that challenge your emotional flexibility.

Just like when you’re working toward a greater physical flexibility, make sure you’re working your emotional flexibility safely. Don’t overextend — if you’re in a vulnerable state of mind, this is probably a time for healing rather than stretching. Balance your emotional workouts with periods of rest, surrounded by the familiar, the unthreatening, and the safe.

Step three: Support. You need to be emotionally supported to be emotionally fit. Because we are built as social animals, we need to be around supportive, accepting, and loving people. But we also need to treat ourselves with love and acceptance. Both are essential for emotional health, and those of us who have access to supportive communities and good habits of self-care need to be working, advocating, and fighting tooth and nail to make sure every human being on earth has access to those same things. And if you don’t have access, reach out. If help exists, even if takes the emotional flexibility you are lacking right now, reach for it. Ask for it. Demand it if you can. Those of us on the other side will be reaching out toward you in return.


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