I’ve come to believe that many people (myself included) do not know how to deal with difficult feelings, and so we avoid them. We eat too much. We scroll through social media. We buy things we don’t need with money we don’t have, all trying to fill a gap to mske sure there is definitely no space for feelings.
Our feelings might be do to with something big, like the death of a loved one, or something relatively small such as an argument with a friend. Either way, I think many of us are determined to avoid dealing with the difficult emotions that can arise. That’s fine in the short term: no discomfort. In the longer term though, that feeling remains. And it keeps trying to make its way out. I believe that if we can just sit and allow our feelings to come up, we can process them and they will leave us in peace. As Edith Eger says, You can’t heal what you can’t feel.
I believe that when we don’t deal with our emotions they stay with us and cause both mental and physical problems, creating a general feeling of unease. We can’t get rid of that until we have dealt with the underlying feelings.
So, how do you deal with difficult feelings? Here are some suggestions to get your started:
Sit quietly and notice what comes up
After years of trying to stuff things down, we may not even be aware of what the original problem was. And these days there are plenty of things with which to distract ourselves. If you’re always distracted by your phone, TV, conversations, work, whatever else, there’s no chance for these feelings to be felt. The first step then is to allow yourself that space where you can just sit without distraction, and see what comes up. I do this in a daily meditation practice, and I also try to ensure there are times during the day where I am doing a relatively mindless task (walking the school run or washing dishes) where I don’t also have music or a podcast playing – so that my mind has the opportunity to process what’s been going on lately, and for other things to come up.
What do you feel, and where?
It can be hard, if you’ve never practised such a thing, to be able to say ah yes, I am feeling guilt/shame/anger. Instead we might find that we feel a tightness in the throat, an uneasiness in the belly. There might be tension you’re holding somewhere in your body, that you were not aware of until you stopped and paid attention. You don’t necessarily need to be able to name a feeling instantaneously. What can be useful is to notice where there is tension or an uneasy feeling. And to sit with it. Don’t brush it off or distract yourself. Just investigate with curiosity: What is this? How does it feel?
If it’s really uncomfortable to do this, tkae a short break and have a wander around, and then come back to it.
Label the emotion, not yourself
There is a big difference between I am angry and This is an angry feeling. Try to avoid labelling yourself, or identifying with the emotion in this way. If you can remain detached from it, it can feel less difficult to deal with. Remember that just because you are feeling anger, that doesn’t mean you are an angry person; it just means that there is some anger there.
Accept the feeling, whatever it is
This might be a good time to note that there is no “bad” emotion. It’s not bad to feel anger, and there is no need to shy away from something that might be uncomfortable. Just sit with it. Acknowledge that it is there. Stay present with it, and try not to tell yourself a story about whether you “should” feel this way. “Should”-ing is not helpful, and making yourself wrong for the way you feel will only make you feel worse. Just accept that this is what’s coming up right now.
Do you know why it’s there?
Sometimes you can have a sort of internal dialogue where you can ask yourself, Why am I feeling this? I often find that what might start out as feeling angry that this person has let me down is actually more to do with something else. Perhaps it has triggered a feeling associated with another person, or perhaps I was unfairly expecting a lot from them. Perhaps I had not communicated my expectation to them, so they didn’t stand a chance. Sometimes, if I’m able to unravel some of this, I can sort of talk myself down and the feeling dissipates.
Let it go
Sometimes we cling to a feeling because we feel justified in having it. I’m right to feel angry over this. The thing is though, emotions are not usually permanent. They come and go; they change; they can be let go. It’s hard to remember this when in the middle of it all, but try to take a moment to remember that this too shall pass.
Be kind to yourself
Don’t beat yourself up for how you feel. Instead, find ways to soothe yourself that allow you to experience the feeling without ignoring or avoiding it. It may just be that with a bit of self care you realise that you were only feeling that way because you were stressed after a busy day or something else is going on. This difficult emotion may actually be a clue as to something different in your life that needs to be addressed. You cannot find these things out though, if you don’t give yourself a little kindness and space to breathe.
Talk to someone
If your feelings seem too big to deal with alone, talk it through with someone. Have a chat with a friend, or if that seems too much, consider seeking professional help. A service like BetterHelp offers online assistance from a trained professional which can be a great way to work through your feelings in a neutral setting.
Whether you talk to a friend or a professional, even just putting your thoughts into sentences can help you to understand things a little more. Often when we order our thoughts enough to be able to explain them to someone else, that process makes things so much clearer for us. Either way, talking to someone else can be very helpful.