In this article, you’ll learn ways to accept, appreciate, and tolerate difficult feelings, so you can experience them and let them go.
Do you try to avoid your feelings – especially your “negative feelings”?
Are your feelings overwhelming?
Do you regularly numb out with food, alcohol, or technology to avoid your feelings?
Are you trapped by negative feelings that you can’t seem to shake? Or do you frequently feel numb or nothing?
Feelings can certainly be confusing and difficult to deal with, but they have an important purpose.
Why feelings matter
Feelings are messengers; they give you valuable information so you can make decisions, understand yourself and others, and get your needs met. For example, if you feel uncomfortable, angry, or afraid when someone stares you down on the subway, your feelings are letting you know that something’s wrong. And recognizing that something is wrong allows you to take action to protect yourself. No one wants to feel uncomfortable, angry, or afraid, but if we avoid our feelings, we’ll miss the important messages they’re sending.
Feelings aren’t right or wrong, but many children learn that there are “bad” or unacceptable feelings. For example, if you were punished for crying or getting angry, you probably learned to bury those feelings so you didn’t get in trouble. Over time, you may have generalized these experiences to form a belief that all (or most) feelings are wrong and you shouldn’t have any feelings or needs. And, now, as an adult, it’s likely that you still struggle to value and pay attention to your feelings.
Identify your feelings
Feelings want to be acknowledged and expressed. They don’t just go away if you ignore them; they’ll continue to bubble up until you pay attention.
When you’ve been pushing your feelings away for a long time, you may not even be aware that you’re doing it. So, the first thing you want to do is start noticing more of your feelings. This takes intentional practice.
Take a few minutes of quiet time to tune into your body. Notice any tension or pain. Notice your breathing and heart rate. Notice your energy level. Now, try to identify what you’re feeling. Using a list of feelings or a feelings wheel can help you name your feelings.
Accept your feelings
Once you’ve identified your feelings, accept them. Try not to judge them as good or bad, valid or invalid, helpful or problematic. Remember, judging your feelings is an old way of thinking that leads to suppressing them. Instead, you want to welcome all of your feelings, recognize their value, and fully accept them.
To do this, try saying something affirming to yourself, such as:
I accept that I feel ______________.
All of my feelings are important.
It’s okay to feel ______________.
Everyone feels ____________ sometimes.
Feel your feelings and let them pass
Allowing yourself to have feelings may be scary for many reasons. You might be concerned that you’ll become overwhelmed by your feelings, you won’t know what to do with them, or you’ll be stuck feeling something unpleasant forever. To counter these fears, I want you to remember that your feelings are both important and temporary.
Feelings naturally come and go if we give them space to exist, sort of like clouds passing through the sky. If we notice and accept our feelings and listen to the messages they’ve brought us, they will serve their purpose and we can use the information for our benefit.
For example, if I identify that I feel sad, I will try to accept my sadness, reminding myself that it’s normal to feel this way and that all feelings are valid. When I question why I feel sad, I learn that I feel sad because I miss my cat. This is valuable information that I can use to help myself. I might reminisce about my cat, make a donation to a cat rescue in his memory, look at pictures of my cat, meditate, and so forth.
However, we don’t want to over-identify with our feelings. We want to accept our feelings and also remember that they don’t define us. Notice the subtle, but important, difference between feeling sad and being sad. When you start to think of yourself as a sad person (rather than a person who sometimes feels sad), you’re holding onto the feeling well beyond its usefulness. Your feelings are important, but they are only part of who you are.
I hope you’ll practice identifying, accepting, and feeling your feelings. If it’s new to you, give it time. Like most things, it gets easier the more you do it.
©2020 Sharon Martin, LCSW. All rights reserved.
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