Who wants to feel negative feelings of hurt, anger, pain, and fear? They’re no fun, they make us uncomfortable. To many, it doesn’t make sense to make room for these emotions. “Why waste time with feeling hurt?”
“If I just keep focusing on the bright side, it will all work out for the best.” “I’ve got better things to do than feel conflict or distress!” While it may seem to make sense to avoid and dismiss feelings that hurt, the truth is, the route to healing and peace of mind is through walking toward those feelings rather than walking away.
Much of my work involves helping people do just that – walk toward their feelings; get connected to the deeper emotions that lay outside of their awareness.
We all have protective strategies we employ to avoid feeling things that are uncomfortable or scary. Elements of denial, avoidance, minimizing, or misdirected anger can keep us away from the reality of the feelings that lie within, beyond our immediate recognition. For example, consider the man who is frustrated because his wife isn’t interested in him sexually any more. After reflection and exploration, he realizes he feels insecure. He is afraid that his wife thinks less of him because he isn’t more successful or hasn’t made more money. Upon further exploration, he reveals childhood experiences that left him feeling that no matter what he does, it is never enough. As he digs deeper, beyond the surface narrative that he had made up, he becomes aware of the very real fears and pain that are impacting him.
It is this discovery of the feelings that lie within, that creates a pathway to acknowledge, experience and resolve the beliefs and feelings that we struggle with. This eventually frees us from the negative beliefs and feelings that are often driving unhealthy or unhelpful behaviors.
Recently, a client of mine began this process of exploration. I gave her a homework assignment to write out her feelings about a specific issue that was of concern to her. As we worked together, it became apparent that she was struggling with deep pain from her childhood. I thought the writing exercise might help her get in touch with just what those feelings might be. When she returned the following week, she said, “I tried to do the homework you gave me, but I couldn’t do it for more than a few minutes.” She explained she was beginning to feel some anger toward her mother, and feeling this anger felt dangerous and bad. My client was sensing there was a lot of emotion in there, and she was afraid to open the door and let it out. She almost pleadingly said, “I don’t know what to do with the feelings.” She was searching for someplace to put the discomfort, or some way to contain the feelings.
I explained to my client that searching for something to do with her feelings is not what she needs. Instead, she needs to let the feelings be. The only thing that must be done with feelings is to feel them. In feeling them they are allowed to be and move through you.
So, what does it mean to let the feelings be? Here are some ideas:
- Identify and acknowledge the feelings. Let yourself know what it is you are feeling. Emotions are felt in the body. The path to awareness is to tune into your body and notice what is happening in your physical self. Are your shoulders tight? Is your stomach swirling? Do you feel pressure in your chest? Let yourself become aware of the feelings in your body. As you feel the sensations, acknowledge the feeling you know accompanies these sensations.
- As you become aware of the feelings, allow them to be present without judgement or self-criticism. Acknowledge the sensations and emotions with neutrality or even self-compassion. Remember, there is no morality to emotion. Feelings are not bad or good, it’s only in what we do because of the feeling that can get us into trouble. Awareness without judgment is the name of the game.
- Validate your emotion. As you become aware of the feeling, affirm its presence and give yourself permission to have the feeling. Say to yourself, “I am feeling sad, angry, frustrated, etc…,” allowing the feeling to be there, again without judgment. Acknowledging and validating the feeling allows what is already there to come into conscious awareness.
- Be present with the emotion. This means you let yourself feel the sensation it brings to your body. You let yourself experience the sadness or anger or whatever feeling is there. Options for allowing this to happen include journaling, drawing, making a collage, listening to or playing music, and sharing the feelings with someone with an understanding ear. Give yourself the time and space you need to experience the feelings.
Allowing our feelings to move from our unconscious to our conscious awareness is essential for healing, and acts as an empowering agent of change. Our quest to avoid feelings is seen in unending busyness, workaholism, substance addiction, sex addiction, gambling, always being in motion, eating, and excessive focus on others, to name just a few. As we slow down, allowing ourselves to discover our true and deeper feelings, we can find paths that lead to resolution, forgiveness, and freedom.
Written by Cheryl Schenck LPC, CSAT