Experiencing sadness, anger, anxiety and other “negative” feelings can be hard. In fact, many of us just don’t do it.
Because we’re afraid.
We’ve “been taught that [negative emotions] are ‘not OK,’ that there is not a way to address them, or that they are not valid feelings,” said Britton Peters, a licensed mental health counselor in the state of Washington.
Maybe when you cried, your caregivers told you to be quiet and get over it. Maybe they sent you to time-out. Maybe they told you to stop whining and be strong.
Maybe your caregivers ignored or dismissed their own emotions or didn’t express them in healthy, responsible ways, said Kat Dahlen deVos, a licensed marriage and family therapist in private practice in San Francisco. Which means you dismiss or ignore your feelings, too.
Maybe you’ve always thrown yourself into work or a busy social life or several glasses of wine, deVos said. Which means you didn’t get much practice in actually feeling your feelings. And without much practice, it’s all too easy not to trust that you can tolerate negative feelings. It’s all too easy to think you’ll fall apart.
We’re also scared of negative feelings because as a society we see these emotions as weak, as making us open to hurt or betrayal from others, Peters said. “When was the last time you saw someone crying and thought how strong they were? Or heard someone discussing sadness and thought how brave they were?”
Instead, we think someone who’s crying or upset doesn’t have control over their emotions, or themselves. Maybe we think how embarrassing. Because we’d be embarrassed to be so exposed in public, or even with another person. Instead, we worship happiness, and prefer to gloss over and snap out of our sadness. So we pretend that everything is OK, because that’s what we see as “strong.” But vulnerability is strength.
And feeling our feelings is vital. It’s vital to our health and well-being. Because “whatever it is we don’t want to feel will eventually find a way to be known,” deVos said. It’ll find a way to be known through tension headaches or insomnia, or through anxiety or depression, she said.
By not feeling a feeling, we also “give it power to hurt us in the future,” Peters said. However, when we acknowledge and validate our feelings, we empower ourselves. We learn that “It will be OK,” and we learn “I have the necessary tools to handle when something uncomfortable comes.”
Below, deVos and Peters share their advice for how to ease into feeling your feelings.
Notice your physical sensations. Notice the sensations that accompany your emotions. Tight chest. Queasy stomach. Heavy head. Heat in the face. Shallow breathing. Cold hands. Tension in the shoulders. “What we call emotions are actually just somatic, bodily experiences that we’ve grouped together and paired with memories, associations, and meanings we’ve created,” said deVos.
Spotting your physical sensations is a neutral approach that prevents you from categorizing emotions as good or bad. Using such categories only fuels our aversion to our “negative” feelings. However, when we track our sensations, “we can ease into feeling the emotion without sounding the alarm to the brain that we’re doing so,” deVos said.
Bookmark your emotions. Once you get comfortable with noticing your physical sensations, you can move on to naming the emotion. According to deVos, “When you notice a feeling, stick a metaphorical bookmark in it by labeling the emotion, if you are able.” If you can’t identify the feeling, simply say, “Feeling,” she said.
Doing this helps you develop an emotional vocabulary, and it helps you “build your capacity to be with and tolerate uncomfortable emotions: As you lean into noticing and naming your emotional experience, your nervous system learns that it’s safe to wade into murkier feelings.”
Validate your feelings. Peters suggested practicing this “mindful cloud” imagery: Imagine a fluffy cloud over you. Your feelings are written in the cloud (such as “sad” or “hopeful”). Select one feeling, and address it. Consider where it came from, and how you can handle it. Next address another feeling. When you’re done, imagine the cloud floating away. “You have addressed and explored those feelings; they were just passing through.”
Reflect on your emotions. According to Peters, ask yourself these questions to gain a deeper understanding of your emotions: What emotions do I feel most often? What are they like? Which emotions spark fear? How do I express these emotions? For instance, you might note that when you’re sad, you scream at your spouse and then isolate yourself. When you’re furious, you become silent and stew in your anger.
Use more emotion words in your daily interactions. For instance, Peters suggested using emotion words in your conversations with friends, such as: “I’m sorry your boss yelled at you and sent you home early. That sounds really tough. I bet that made you sad and frustrated.” Add in how you felt when you’re describing your own events, as well. “You would be surprised how many unidentified/unrecognized emotional experiences you have in a day.”
Comfort yourself. Find soothing activities that specifically work for you, Peters said. For instance, you might diffuse oils as you listen to a guided meditation. You might stretch your body or take a long walk.
Peters likes this Ted talk, called “The 3 A’s of Awesome,” from Neil Pasricha about the power of little things in our lives. “My favorite is when he mentions how wonderful, and under-appreciated, warm sheets out of the dryer are. What a simple, but cozy experience it is to wrap up and feel warm and comfortable all over.”
Feeling our feelings is not easy. It’s much easier to dismiss them or to reach for a quick fix. But when we do, we’re only dismissing ourselves. We’re only stopping ourselves from learning and growing. Honor your feelings. Go as slowly as you need to acknowledge and experience them. The more you do, the easier and more natural it will become.