Guy Winch Wants You to Practice Emotional Hygiene

The importance of emotional first aid for single moms

As children, it is instilled in us to care for our bodies. Psychologist Guy Winch believes our emotional well-being is equal to, if not more important than, our physical well-being—yet our “first-aid kit for emotional injuries” is nonexistent.

In his book Emotional First Aid: Healing Rejection, Guilt, Failure, and Other Everyday Hurts (first published by Hudson Street Press in 2013), Winch encourages us to practice “emotional hygiene” to maintain our emotional health and gives tips to practice emotional first aid to heal battered emotions.

Feelings of rejection, loneliness, loss, guilt, rumination, failure, and low self-esteem are as debilitating as any physical ailment, and yet the treatment and cure for these emotions are far more elusive.

As a rule, we put the body before the mind even though emotional injuries generally take longer to heal. And for some of us single moms who struggle to maintain just the basics, emotional hygiene is probably the last thing we think of.

In our culture, physical hygiene is routine: teeth brushing, handwashing, annual checkups, etc. We treat illness with the standard chicken soup, Tylenol, and rest. We treat injuries with Neosporin, Band-Aids, or casts—because we know if we leave these physical injuries untreated, things will get worse. Yet we do not give our children the tools to manage emotional care. We most likely don’t manage it ourselves.

Although we received our certificates in infant CPR and know how to treat the basic boo-boos, most of us don’t know the first thing about emotional first aid. We can’t put a Band-Aid on failure, guilt, and rejection. Yet how many of us would trade a paper cut over the feeling of loss that accompanies a failed marriage?

Winch illustrates this phenomenon with a story about himself and his twin brother: As medical students, the brothers were separated by an ocean, so they had an appointment to speak on the phone once a week. One time, because of a misunderstanding, the call was missed. Winch was left with a sense of profound loneliness and despair, therefore discovering that emotions can scramble our thinking and reality.

With loneliness, our thinking tends to jump to, Nobody cares about me, even though that most likely isn’t true. We don’t reach out to others because we fear rejection will only make our loneliness worse. And on it goes. . . .

But loneliness is a subjective feeling that can distort and mislead us. It can also be dangerous. Research shows that feeling chronically lonely increases the likelihood of an early death by 14%. Where cigarettes have warning labels about their risks, loneliness does not.

“You can’t treat emotional illness if you don’t know you are injured.”

Winch puts forth, “It’s time we close the gap between our physical and emotional health. Time we treat them more equal.”

Drawing on hard science and anecdotal research, Winch has created specific, easy-to-use steps to aid in the recovery of battered emotions and create a lifelong practice of emotional hygiene.

1. Pay attention to emotional pain. Failure is really good at causing emotional pain: If three toddlers attempt the same puzzle, they each can have completely different experiences based on each one’s belief about his or her ability to succeed. The first toddler completes the puzzle—no problem. The second toddler can sort of do it—whatever. But for some reason, the third toddler finds it too difficult and collapses into a tantrum because he feels he’s failed.

We adults experience the same processing. Whatever our situation, we might feel a sense of failure based on our subjective perception of what that means. We might gauge our success as a single mom by what we presume to be blissful success in a neighbor’s parenting. One failure from a smorgasbord of reasonable goofs—a grocery-store meltdown, a missed pickup at school, a forgotten doctor’s appointment—can make us believe we can’t triumph as a parent at all.

Says Winch, “Our minds are hard to change once we’ve become convinced. You have to fight feelings of helplessness and gain control over the situation. You have to break this negative cycle before it begins.”

2. Stop emotional bleeding. Rejection is painful. Our minds aren’t always our allies: For example, a single mom goes on a first date. The date is a fail. Her inner voice might tell her, I’m unattractive. I need to lose weight. Nobody will ever want me. A real-life friend would never say this, yet we all do this to ourselves. And as single moms, we have a large palette to choose from when it comes to self-criticism.

We don’t make physical injuries worse by picking at them, so why do we do this mentally? Winch advises, “When you are in emotional pain, treat yourself with the same compassion as you would a good friend.”

3. Protect your self-esteem. Our self-esteem is our “emotional immune system.” It is there to protect us from psychological illness. Therefore, we must avoid people, situations, thoughts, or actions that can damage self-esteem.

4. Battle negative thinking. Rumination is one way we beat down our self-esteem: We stew on a fight we had with an ex, a parent, a teacher. We obsessively replay what was said or what we “should have said” for weeks. That is a bad habit! It puts us in a cycle of focusing on the negative, which in turn puts us at risk for developing depression.

Break this cycle!

Winch points out, “Studies show even a two-minute distraction is sufficient to break the urge to ruminate. . . . ” Might I suggest Netflix? Your outlook could change from negative to positive almost instantly.

5. Be informed. Take advantage of the resources available. A short visit to Winch’s TED Talk can give you tools for building emotional strength. The Internet is exploding with information to stock your emotional first-aid kit.

By changing just a few habits and giving your emotional well-being the same attention you would your body, you can address minor emotional abrasions before they become big infected ones. (And we know how we moms hate infections!) And in doing so, we can live happier and more contented lives.

For additional tools to add to your emotional first aid kit, read Emotional Hygiene for Single Mothers

Thumbnail credit: Screen shot from “How to practice emotional first aid | Guy Winch”

Kathleen Laccinole, ESME’s Dating Resource Guide, has penned numerous films and parenting books but is best known for producing the highly lauded Greta, age 20, and William, age 16.

Please feel free to contact us with any comments or questions.

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