Many of us avoid feeling our feelings because we worry that feeling them will be more painful than just pretending they don’t exist. Or we assume they’ll simply skulk away (and stay away permanently).
However, according to therapist and author Tina Gilbertson, LPC, in her book Constructive Wallowing: How to Beat Bad Feelings By Letting Yourself Have Them, “You let feelings ‘go’ by feeling them fully. Once they’re felt, they can leave.”
Of course, feeling painful feelings can be just that: painful. So it’s totally understandable that we want to avoid them. As Gilbertson writes, avoiding pain is natural.
“It’s the main reason, for example, that we don’t willingly bend our knees or elbows backwards. Pain is Nature’s way of warning us about things that are not good for us.”
Emotional pain, she writes, is like physical pain: It warns us that something is wrong. It communicates what’s important to us, how our lives are going and whether we need to change course.
“But the pain itself is not wrong; it’s only the messenger. When we refuse to (w)allow in our emotional pain, we’re not avoiding trouble, we’re shooting the messenger who’s bringing news of trouble. And if we shoot the messenger, it’s not going to keep delivering clear messages.”
In Constructive Wallowing, Gilbertson presents the T-R-U-T-H technique, which helps readers allow and accept our feelings and actually feel them.
These aren’t sequential steps. Rather, she notes, they happen at the same time. As such, she suggests thinking of these “steps” as parts of a process.
When doing this exercise Gilbertson suggests having a comfortable place to sit or lie down; a box of tissues; and one or several pillows.
T: Tell yourself the situation.
Gilbertson suggests sticking to the facts without judging them. For instance, there’s an upcoming event you’re not looking forward to, someone has rejected you, or you’ve let yourself down, she writes.
Sometimes, you might not know why you feel a certain way. When this happens, simply say: “I feel bad, and I don’t know why.”
And, if you’re not sure where to start, according to Gilbertson, you might say: “I feel awful about this whole thing with So-and-so.”
R: Realize what you’re feeling.
Focus on what you’re feeling right now, in this moment. Whatever you’re feeling is perfectly OK. As Gilbertson says, “There’s no need to make sure your emotions are ‘correct’ given the situation.”
Gilbertson includes these examples:
- “I’m dreading my sister’s wedding.”
- “I feel hurt by what he said, even if he didn’t mean it that way.”
- “I’m afraid of my own emotions. I don’t want to look too closely.”
U: Uncover self-criticism.
“We criticize ourselves to make ourselves better people,” writes Gilbertson. But this criticism only makes us feel worse.
“And then we criticize ourselves again for feeling bad! It’s a negative feedback loop.”
Self-criticism sabotages our healing, and it encourages us to hide the truth from ourselves. (Self-criticism also leads to anxiety and depression and is an ineffective motivator.)
Gilbertson includes these examples of self-criticism and self-critical thoughts:
- Insisting that feelings have to be accurate or justified.
- Being impatient with your feelings.
- “I shouldn’t feel this way; she’s my only sister.”
- “Why am I making a big deal out of this tiny thing?”
T: Try to understand yourself.
According to Gilbertson, “Instead of evaluating your feelings as good or bad, or yourself as good or bad for having the feelings you do, put your brain to work on understanding yourself.”
Consider why you might be feeling the way you’re feeling. For instance, she suggests asking yourself: “Why might a good person feel this way?” Don’t focus on whether a good person should feel this way.
She shares these examples:
- “The wedding will take a lot out of me. There’s so much work to be done. I’m tired … No wonder I’m not looking forward to it.”
- “I’ve been hurt in just that way before. He poked a tender spot in me … No wonder I feel hurt.”
- “I’ve been a stranger to myself for so long, I’m worried about what I might find if I look inside. There’s probably a lot of pain there … No wonder I’m scared.”
H: Have the feeling.
Sit with your feelings. Cry. Punch those pillows. Talk to yourself using kind words.
“As you experience your true feelings, let them matter to you as if you were your own dear friend.”
You might not feel better immediately after doing this technique. Or you might, but then a few hours or days later, you might feel worse. This is natural, according to Gilbertson. She likens it to kicking up dust. “Things don’t settle back down right away.”
And, as Gilbertson says throughout the book, remember that whatever feelings you’re feeling, “it’s OK.”