Allowing Yourself to Feel Bad is the Key to Feeling Better

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“The more you hide your feelings, the more they show. The more you deny your feelings, the more they grow.” – Unknown

No one seeks out opportunities to feel distress.  Yet hardships seem to find us all at one point or another.  Whether it’s a relationship that has become unhealthy, a job that’s not fulfilling, a personal loss or tragedy, we all face challenges that bring rise to uncomfortable emotions. How we respond to these emotional experiences greatly determines how long they last and the impact they will have on our lives.

Our Western culture glorifies happiness as if this is a reasonable goal all the time.  We are not taught the tools to tolerate our own emotional distress, let alone the distress of others.  In fact, most people assume there’s something wrong with feeling anything other than constant happiness. “What’s wrong with me that I have so much pain?” or “Why can’t I just get over this?”

When we feel distress, the natural reaction is to recoil.  We want to push away this feeling, deny it, or ignore it.  We are in a rush to move on, heal this hurt so it’s in our past.  We may isolate, bottle it up, or try to drink it away.  Or we may throw ourselves into supposedly healthy action with distraction, exercise, talking to friends, or therapy.  We think that if only we fixed ourselves by getting fit, earning degrees, making more money, or being well-liked then we’d feel better.

The trouble with this approach is that it puts us in combat with ourselves.  We judge ourselves for feeling bad.  We react to our own negative feelings with blame and self-criticism.  So a momentary experience of sadness can be transformed into a greater sense of life dissatisfaction and depression.  Or a momentary experience of worry transforms into a greater struggle with daily anxiety and fear.  We cause ourselves unnecessary suffering by getting into a battle with ourselves.

BUT THERE IS ANOTHER WAY!

Let yourself feel bad.  The heart needs time to feel before healing is even possible.  Resisting the pain, even with the best of strategies, only allows it to persist.  Challenge yourself to sit with the feeling, knowing that it is temporary and will evolve.  No one feeling lasts forever.  You may notice physical sensations associated with this emotional pain, like a heaviness in your chest or aching in your belly.  Breathe through these sensations and allow them to be present.  Resist the urge to distract or rush through this process.  Just being still and allowing the feelings room to rise is an important and valuable experience.  You don’t even need to label the feeling, it’s just about bearing witness to your distress and tolerating the discomfort it creates.

Show yourself compassion.  Speak to yourself with kindness and understanding.  Soften to your own emotional suffering with loving energy.  Expressing this compassion for your own pain is a significant shift away from the unhealthy patterns of avoiding and criticizing.  It opens you up to heal and grow from the experience.  Research has been building on the power of self-compassion, allowing yourself to truly feel and accept your feelings just as they are.  And this acceptance actually frees you from being stuck in a feeling.

It will feel awkward and uncomfortable to sit with your own distressing feelings at first.  And it may be helpful to seek professional help to get started if your emotions seem overwhelming.  But with regular practice, you will find it becomes easier to tolerate these feelings and notice them gently begin to heal.

Written by Suzanne Smith, Ph.D. for the Linden Blog. If you are interested in receiving Linden Blog updates with original articles about parenting, families, mental health, and wellness, subscribe using the field below. If you are interested in scheduling an appointment at Linden BP call 440/250-9880.

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