A Middle Path Between Avoiding Feelings and Fueling Them
As a psychotherapist for nearly thirty-five years, I often invite my clients to notice and welcome their genuine feelings. Many clients feel relieved that it’s okay to feel whatever they happen to experiencing. And they feel reassured that someone (namely, me!) is interested in hearing their authentic feelings without judging them.
But some people are troubled by the prospect of opening to their feelings. They ask some version of the following: “Why would I want to feel those feelings? Why would I want to experience pain, hurt, or sorrow?”
This question is often asked as if we have solid choices over what we feel — and that we should be able to exert total control over our emotions.
This is tricky. We certainly don’t want to live a life that is out of control, where our emotions run us, leaving us feeling distraught, lost, or overwhelmed. But we also don’t want to suppress our emotions, which is not good for our well-being. When emotions are kept hidden or stuffed down, they have a way of seeping out in destructive ways.
A path forward is to develop a skillful relationship with the full range of our feelings as they arise in the moment. This is a middle path between avoiding our feelings and fueling them. It is a path of being mindful of feelings without merging with them and getting lost in them.
What we call “feelings” is simply what arises as a result of being alive. Our partner is late and we feel angry or disappointed. A friend criticizes us and we feel hurt or shame. These are normal human emotions. A loved one dies or a relationship ends and we feel sad. Life has many “necessary losses”(link is external)— that is, ones that we cannot avoid. Being alive means experiencing life fully and embracing the mix of joy and sorrow that is a part of being human.
Living life fully means living with an open heart. We touch life and allow ourselves to be touched by life. The trick is to find a way to engage with our feelings so that we’re not emotionally flooded. I often ask clients who are experiencing troubling emotions, “Can you be gentle with that?”
When feelings are noticed and welcomed (or at least tolerated), they tend to calm down, just as a hurting child becomes calmer when his or her feelings are heard and honored. If we criticize or shame children for feeling sad or afraid, they are likely to become even more sad or fearful.
Similarly, it is self-shaming to tell ourselves that we shouldn’t be feeling what we feel or that something is wrong with us for feeling this way. Then, not only do we feel sad or hurt, but now toxic shame infiltrates the sadness or hurt. Oftentimes, the hidden shame leaves us feel much worse than the original emotion itself.
If we can be gentle with our feelings and remind ourselves of the following, then difficult or uncomfortable feelings may settle:
- It’s OK to be feeling this.
- It’s not the end of the world.
- It’s a normal human feeling.
- I know this will pass.
We might also learn something from the feelings we befriend. For example, we may notice a sense of hurt or shame when on a date with someone we met on a dating site. If we avoid these feelings, we don’t avail ourselves of precious information about this person. Perhaps our sense of not feeling safe is a message to discontinue seeing the person or to set some boundary. Or maybe the feeling will prompt us to express our discomfort. Perhaps we misunderstood them, or maybe some painful childhood experience was being reactivated.
The approach known as Focusing(link is external), based on Dr. Eugene Gendlin’s(link is external) research at the University of Chicago, is one way to befriend our feelings. It is a gentle way to be mindful of what we’re experiencing without judging ourselves. Being gently present with how feelings are living in our body can give us some distance from them. As Gendlin often has said, “If you want to know what the soup smells like, it’s better not to stick your head in it.”
Try the following the next time you notice difficult or uncomfortable feelings. And, or course, if something is especially difficult or painful, you may want to see a therapist to process it.
- Allow yourself to notice what you are feeling.
- Pause and be gently present with the feeling without judging yourself.
- Notice how the feeling is living in your body right now. Where do you notice it and what does it feel like?
- If it feels right, allow your breath to gently lap around the feeling. Bringing awareness to your breath can sometimes let the emotion settle.
- Above all, be gentle with yourself, don’t push yourself, and don’t criticize yourself for whatever you might be feeling.