All the Feels: How to Give Yourself Space to Deal With Hard Emotions

November 26, 2020

Have you ever smiled through a show even though your heart wasn’t in it, or put on your game face in class despite feeling tired or out of sorts? Dancers are performers, and performing positivity is a skill that can get you through tough moments without anyone knowing you’re upset. But that doesn’t mean it’s always the healthiest choice.

“Hiding your emotions for too long can lead to a backlash,” says performance psychologist Linda Hamilton. “It’s like a pressure cooker. You can push it down, but it isn’t going to go away.” This year has been full of disappointments, frustrations and fears, so it’s understandable if you’re struggling. Try these strategies to acknowledge your emotions—and work through them in a healthy way.

Talk It Out

Opening up about your emotions can be the first step toward feeling better. A good venting session with friends or family might do the trick. Your regular dance teachers are also a great option—and chances are, they’ve already noticed that something’s off. “We can tell when you’re not yourself, even if we’re only seeing you virtually,” says Melissa Bowman, director of Houston Ballet Academy. “If we have a conversation, we can support you through it.”

You could even ask your studio to institute dedicated time for everyone to share as a group. “After every class now, I ask my dancers ‘How are you doing?’ I encourage them to speak up,” says Cristina Fargas, who teaches at Westlake School for the Performing Arts in Daly City, CA. “It’s okay to have bad days. Being sad is not something to be ashamed of.”

When should you seek professional counseling? “If you’ve been depressed or hopeless for more than two weeks, you can’t stop crying, you don’t want to get out of bed, or you’ve been isolating from your loved ones,” Hamilton says, it may be time to call a therapist. A specialist will have the training and tools to guide you back onto solid ground.

Writing in a journal can be a great outlet—and a great way to work through your feelings. (Getty Images/stock-eye)

Find Another Outlet

“Journaling is a good way to work through your feelings,” Hamilton says. It’s also private, if that’s a concern. But putting words on a page isn’t the only medium you can use to explore your emotions. You might try drawing or painting. You could learn to play a musical instrument or spend time exploring new music. You could take nature walks. Fargas began gardening during the pandemic. “I was a brown thumb before, and now I’m growing everything,” she says. “There are many activities, besides dancing, where you might find joy.”

This year has been filled with uncertainty, and “ambiguity is the most stressful situation one can be in,” says Hamilton. “In periods of ambiguity, it’s helpful to pursue activities where you have some control.” Just be careful not to overschedule yourself; busy work can be another way to avoid dealing with tough emotions.

Minimize Social Media

“Be wary of social media if it’s making you feel bad,” Hamilton says. “If you’re already upset, and everyone’s raving about their amazing Zoom classes on social media, you might not feel like you fit in.” Social platforms can encourage the performance of positive emotions: happiness, excitement, gratitude, peace. When you’re feeling low, the contrast can be too much to take.

Instead, use technology for genuine connection. If video meetups make you feel like you’re on display, go old school. Phone calls, emails and text messages let you touch base without having to put on a happy face. You could even try writing a letter (yes, we’re talking old-school old school) to a friend. “Talking about feelings is already stressful. There’s no reason to make it harder for yourself,” Hamilton says. “Sometimes dancers can be more expressive when they aren’t being viewed.”

Live in the Now

A lot of things that were supposed to happen this year…didn’t. Instead of dwelling on what might have been, look ahead by setting small, attainable goals. “What can you work on today?” asks Bowman. “You’re dancing in a tiny space—how can you make the most of it? You’re feeling sad—how can you use it?” Maybe you’ll aim to perfect your port de bras. Maybe you want to fine-tune your artistry (channeling those big feelings you’re feeling, of course). Giving yourself goals you can achieve will restore some power in a powerless time.

Finally, remember that you’re not alone. The impacts of COVID-19 are being felt around the world, and no one knows when things will return to normal. “Dance already requires so much tenacity, and this period is forcing us to adapt,” Bowman says. “Acknowledging that we’re all going through this lets us move forward as a team.” Rely on your support system and no matter how bad you’re feeling on a given day, you’ll make it to the other side.