Feelings. They get such a bad wrap. If there is one thing the psychology world has a lot of contradictory opinions on, it is feelings. Advice ranges from:
Anytime there is information coming from 2 extremes the answer is somewhere in the messy middle. For so many years that is why I avoided feelings…because they are messy, there isn’t a hard and fast way to deal with them; there is no ‘right’ way.
Here’s what I know to be true:
So given all that how are we supposed to deal with feelings? Here is a story from Emily someone I recently worked with (name and details have been changed)
Emily has had a tough year. Her ex-husband harps on her about every little thing when it comes to the shared custody of their sons. Her company is going through some re-structuring so there is a lot of unknowns in the workplace and her Mom’s breast cancer just recently returned. She is overwhelmed (to say the least). Recently I mentioned to Emily that she needed to FEEL her feelings. Her response was, “I have no problem being angry and sad I am the first to share all the hard times I am going through and complain about them. I feel like I get stuck in my feelings I take them out on my kids, I feel stressed all the time. I need to get OUT of them not have MORE of them.” My response was, “You do a great job of justifying your feelings and replaying the events that leave you feeling stuck. But you don’t ever allow yourself to FEEL anything. You just intellectualize them.”
I use to be like Emily. I would feel stressed and then spend the rest of the day justifying why I was stressed listing off all the stressors. But never allowing myself to soften into the anger, sadness, and frustration just replaying it over and over. I would argue that Emily wasn’t feeling anything, she was simply naming all the bad things in her life. She wasn’t allowing herself to feel them. She wasn’t owning her anger or giving herself a chance to experience it. She would just label the event that justified her anger and moved on.
When we spend our time justifying/intellectualizing our stress we are dancing in the shallow end. Think of it like entering the ocean and the water is chilly. As you wade in you, you stand in the shallow end, and the cold waves keep splashing you. You just stand there getting slapped by the cold waves, never actually getting in the water. Similarly, when we replay all our ‘wrongs,’ we just keep getting hit with the cold waves. But when we wade all the way in and immerse ourselves in the cold water when we allow the anger to come over us and feel the pain completely, we WILL feel better. When we soften into what is happening head on we can assimilate and find relief. When we accept our anger, it dissipates. When we accept the cold water and allow our body to adjust, it dissipates. But standing in the shallow end saying how cold the water is doesn’t feel good and it doesn’t help.
Recently Emily sent me an email. She shared how she did end up losing her job. The company was downsizing and she was one of the casualties. Emily came home from work and was devastated. She called her partner for support, and he immediately jumped into problem-solving mode. Remembering our conversation, she stopped him mid suggestion and said, “You know today, I just want to be pissed off. I just want to be angry because I am. This sucks. Tomorrow I will solve the problem today I am pissed.” As she was telling me the story, she said, “I was shocked that came out of my mouth, but I did just want one day to be angry.” THIS is acknowledging your feelings. Emily allowed herself to feel angry because she was legit angry. In her email, she shared how skeptical she was about the process but how much better she felt. “I didn’t feel like a victim (like I thought I would) feeling the anger empowered me. I am amazed how much it helped.”
Feeling your feelings isn’t something you have to DO it is something your body naturally does, you just have to give yourself permission. So the next time you notice yourself listing all the negatives in your life ask yourself, “How does this make me feel?” With each response just allow yourself to soften and give yourself some empathy and grace such as “Oh that sucks.” or “Oh Sweet Pea” and then ask yourself again “How does this make me feel?” At first, you might have to ask yourself multiple times before you soften into the actual feeling. This process allows you to move past the shallow end and swim in the deep water. Ride those waves it is life changing.