How to Handle Bad News Like a Pro

Whether it’s disappointment, scary events, sad news or heartbreak, everyone has something tough to face. The pain that can come with any of these is common to us all and can threaten to derail us if we don’t take steps to work through it.

Working through it, of course, doesn’t mean just locking feelings up in a box and ignoring them (hello, recipe for disaster and future meltdown). Nor does it mean retreating into endless sadness or isolation for an indeterminate amount of time. We need to process, to grieve, to allow ourselves to feel everything we’re going through, and eventually, we need to face the reality of moving through the situation.

If you’ve been through something that fits these categories—and we bet you have—you’ll be familiar with the harsh truth that the world continues on, which can sometimes feel cold, like the rest of the universe doesn’t acknowledge how hard things are right now. It’s important to always take the time you need to work through your situation before you try to move through it. 

To tackle tough news without losing your spirit for too long, consider this expert advice from Megan Bruneau, a New York City-based psychotherapist, and Claire Willhite, a psychotherapist at San Francisco’s Center for Youth Wellness.

There are no rules when it comes to grieving

You may feel like there is a time limit on how long you’re allowed to feel down or disappointed, but as Bruneau explains, “There is no ‘appropriate’ grieving period for loss. We compound our suffering by judging ourselves for it. When we judge ourselves for not being ‘over it’ in the time that we believe we should, we create shame, anxiety and frustration.” Obviously, these are not helpful when you’re dealing with something much bigger.

You may also find you don’t experience the feeling of disappointment or loss right away. “Some people go days or weeks feeling okay, then feel like they take a step back. That’s normal. In the case of losses we can foresee (like a breakup we initiate), our grieving may begin months or years before the actual loss. It’s not linear, and it doesn’t have to be.”

… but it’s important to seek support

Whatever the timeline may be, taking the time you need to work through your emotions is essential. Willhite recommends finding someone—a therapist, a loved one, a friend—who can help validate your feelings rather than immediately jump into problem-solving mode.

You may wish to seek the support of a therapist, particularly if your grief interferes with your daily life, Bruneau says. “Some people are more affected by loss than others based on their life experience, support network and relationship to self,” she explains Working with a therapist not only provides that support, it may help to identify other pillars in your life you can lean on. “When you’re ready, it can be incredibly helpful to seek out others in similar situations, formally or informally. You might not be up for a grief group, but maybe there’s an online forum or Facebook group you can connect to,” she adds. “And the support you receive doesn’t necessarily have to be those who are in or have been through similar situations. What’s most important is that you feel safe, heard and not judged.”

An ‘everything happens for a reason’ mentality isn’t always the best tactic 

While it can sometimes be helpful to look for acceptance by telling yourself there has to be a reason for what you’re going through, there are times when this isn’t the best route (at least not initially).

“It is normal to deny ourselves the opportunity to acknowledge or accept failure, loss or disappointment, looking immediately to a potential silver lining, manufacturing some sort of meaning, or merely denying that anything is the matter,” says Willhite. “Taking a moment to validate ourselves and the situation at hand is a good first step in working through a situation, so that it doesn’t come back to haunt us later on.”

Adds Bruneau, “It might feel impossible to think you’ll ever find meaning in what has happened, especially if you’ve suffered a severe loss. In such cases, try to remind yourself you may ultimately find meaning, but you don’t have to at this time.”

… but finding meaning in your challenges can be helpful

Bruneau works with the concept of life being her teacher, asking, “What lesson is in this?” in the face of challenge. “Trust that whatever pain you are going through is there to teach you something,” she says. “If nothing else—at least right away—you’re learning to relate to difficult feelings in a new way.”

Know that you have made it through some tough things in the past, and yet, here you are now.

“It can be helpful to look back on your life and acknowledge awareness or positivity that has emerged from negative times,” Bruneau says. “Post-traumatic growth is a real thing. Difficult times are opportunities for us for strengthening our coping, practicing healthier responses, deepening connection, and building strength, resilience and self-compassion.” She recommends reaffirming that like everything else in life, this tough time is impermanent. It will shift and change and you will come out stronger.

Be kind to yourself

In difficult times, it can feel like the whole universe is against you. An adversary like this can make for some pretty overwhelming thought processes, so it’s important to remember to be self compassionate. “Treat yourself as you would a friend or loved one,” Bruneau says. Give yourself permission to feel however you’re feeling. “Remember, grief and disappointment are reflections of connections and hope,” she adds.

Find ways to soothe your spirit

In addition to working through your feelings, you may also look for ways to be good to yourself and find meaning, calmness and, yes, even distraction in positive things. When you’re squarely in the middle of “going through” something, Bruneau suggests seeking out centering pastimes like journaling, painting or drawing, yoga, dance, walking, massage, therapy and even talking about the loss with people with whom you feel safe and loved.

Willhite also extols the value of self-care: “It’s critical at this point in your process, even if you’re not feeing up to it. We all know that a healthy diet, good sleep, exercise, and mindfulness are good for us, but during difficult times we are often unmotivated to follow through. Bear in mind that other, more available efforts can be helpful, such as listening to music, watching a funny movie or keeping a gratitude journal.

Adds Bruneau, “If you need a distraction, spend time with friends, engage in sports or ‘fun,’ and give yourself permission to lose yourself in movies or shows that catch your attention. But don’t judge yourself too hard if you eat a pan of brownies or watch the whole fourth season of Orange is The New Black in one sitting. Obviously, we want to move toward healthy coping 95% of the time, but you’re an imperfect human and you’re going to cope imperfectly, too.”

To avoid losing yourself in a snowball of self-doubt, Willhite recommends recognizing your strengths and accomplishments. “However small, they can help to maintain confidence and self esteem during difficult times,” she says. “Make a list, look through old photos—remind yourself that you are so much more than your current situation.”

Externalizing the pain may help

It’s important to seek perspective on your situation, which you can do by openly voicing what you feel. “If you sweep it under the rug, it will catch up with you. Feel your feelings, share them with friends, family or a therapist, or even put them in a journal,” suggest Willhite. It’s incredible what a little distance can do to help your healing process.

Know that you may feel like a different person

“I often have clients tell me they think [they’re] bipolar,” Megan told us. “Remind yourself the emotional rollercoaster is all part of the process, and try not to judge yourself for your feelings and physical reactions. Grief mimics depression, and you’re likely to experience changes in mood, appetite, sleep, energy, and concentration. Lower your expectations for yourself, connect with people you love, and trust there will be meaning in the pain.”

Amy Height is a holistic health coach, triathlete and yogi traveling North America full-time to discover the best in nutrition and fitness. She shares healthy living ideas and plant-based, gluten-free recipes at From the Ground Up Wellness. Follow the adventures and find some fit-foodie inspiration on Instagram, amyheight.