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5 Steps for Processing Difficult Experiences

At Cedar Counseling & Wellness, our team is dedicated to helping clients achieve their therapy goals and providing resources to support their goals in and out of the office. Our blog is one of these resources, but we also have a podcast called the Ten Minute Therapist where we share short episodes with tips, tools, and resources to support your mental health goals. This blog post is based on our podcast episode, 5 Steps for Processing Difficult Experiences. We hope you’ll give this episode a listen or explore some of our other podcast episodes.

A difficult experience can be life shattering or traumatic, but it could also be something smaller like a bad day at work, an argument with a friend, or forgetting your loved one’s birthday. During difficult life experiences, people tend to have one of two extreme responses. They either do their best to ignore or avoid the situation, or they become immersed in the details and are buried so deep inside the experience that they can’t move through it. Both of these ways of managing difficult experiences are deeply rooted in how our brains protect us from these confronting situations, but neither of these responses really helps us process challenging times. Instead of ignoring the situation or immersing ourselves in it, we need a way to maintain some distance from the experience while still processing what is happening, what our role is, and what (if anything) we need to do. That’s what the five steps for processing difficult experiences, outlined below, allow us to do. This process gives us the opportunity to separate ourselves and really reflect on what is happening and how we can effectively handle the situation.

Step 1 – Clarify the Situation

Ask yourself, “What is the situation? What is really happening?” Consider, objectively, what is happening. Not what might happen if you take a specific action. Just consider what has happened. Try to describe the experience to yourself like you would explain the plot of a movie or book to a friend.

Step 2 – Determine How the Situation Makes You Feel

How did this experience make you feel? Be as detailed as possible about your emotions. If you’re angry, consider what is making you angry about the situation. Are you angry because you resent someone or are you jealous? What extent of anger are your experiencing? Are you mildly irritated or completely irate? Really dive deep into your emotions and try to identify and understand them.

Step 3 – Connect the Situation to Your Larger Narrative & Deeper Meanings

Is your challenging experience related to a larger narrative you tell about yourself or is there a deeper meaning attached to this experience? In some situations, the answer to this question may be a simple no, but during difficult experiences, you may find yourself connecting this one, specific challenging event to past experiences that may or may not be related. For example, if you forget a loved one’s birthday, you could tell yourself something like, “I’m so forgetful. I never remember these important dates. My loved ones deserve better.” This internal narrative is not based on the current situation. Instead, it is connected to past experiences where you perceived yourself as forgetful or were told by others that you weren’t thoughtful enough. These kinds of broad generalizations of experiences as being related or the same or repeated, can become core beliefs, which may impact our responses in future difficult situations.

Step 4 – Uncover Your Needs

When we have difficult experiences, the situation often feels challenging or confronting because we have some need that’s not being met. It can be difficult to identify these needs, so you may want to talk the situation through with a trusted friend. Perhaps you need comfort, reassurance, self-forgiveness, self-compassion, connection, physical touch, or a reminder of your worth.

Step 5 – Take Steps to Get Needs Met in Healthy Ways

Once you establish what needs aren’t being met in the situation, it’s time to determine how you can meet those needs in healthy ways. It may not be something you can do immediately. We’re not looking for band aids or short-term solutions. Instead, what long-term, healthy solutions are available to meet your unmet needs in this and future difficult situations? As a bonus, consider some past ways that you coped in difficult situations and explore why these were unhealthy and ineffective ways of meeting your needs. For instance, during difficult experiences, do you stress eat, self-isolate, or rely on alcohol or other substances to numb out?

Bonus – Talk to One of Our Therapists About Processing These Experiences

These five steps can be really beneficial to help you begin to process and create long-term solutions to manage difficult experiences, but it can be tough to complete each stage of this process. If you’re struggling or you want to work alongside a professional who can help you dive a little deeper, we hope you’ll consider getting in touch with the Cedar Counseling & Wellness team to schedule a therapy session with our knowledgeable clinicians.

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