For a long time I believed there were only certain emotions it was ok to feel…and even those should be regarded with a bit of suspicion. I ignored and avoided and tried to will away whatever I was feeling until I mostly just felt numb.
Then some little thing would go wrong and I’d find myself lashing out at someone I never meant to hurt. Most of the time I didn’t even know what I was actually upset about. All those feelings I thought I’d gotten rid of weren’t really gone. They were all tangled together and buried deep.
For many of us, our emotions spark expectations and judgments. We have beliefs about what we feel or don’t feel says about us. We know that impulsively acting out any emotion that comes up can have serious consequences. It can seem safer or more acceptable to avoid certain emotions all together, but denying our feelings is denying part of ourselves.
In The Pursuit of Perfect, Tal Ben-Shahar explains:
While it’s at times necessary to keep certain emotions out of sight (when we are with others), it may be harmful to try to keep them out of mind (when we are alone). We are taught that it is improper to display our anxiety or to cry in public, so we hold our emotions back in private as well. Anger does not win us friends and over time we lose our ability to express and experience anger altogether. We extinguish our anxiety, fear, and rage for the sake of being pleasant and easy to get along with—and in the process of getting others to accept us, we reject ourselves. Denying ourselves the permission to acknowledge and truly experience “undesirable” emotions is detrimental to our well-being…
Feelings are fluid. When we react to our emotions without looking at what is really prompting them and how our response fits into the big picture of who we are and where we want our life to be headed, we’re basing our actions and decisions on something that shifts and changes.
On the other hand, when we try to control which emotions we feel and refuse to accept any emotion that doesn’t fit with who we think we’re supposed to be, we deny part of ourselves and ignore valuable information about what is really going on for us. Emotions don’t just go away because we avoid them. Instead they build up inside us and may start to show up in unexpected ways.
Tal’s comparison of our emotional experience to a water pipeline helps me visualize the flow of feelings.
If we inject water into a clogged pipeline, the pressure will increase a great deal more than if the water is allowed to flow freely through a clear pipeline; similarly, if we allow painful emotions to flow through us naturally, freely, the pressure eases and they eventually subside. A continuous buildup of water pressure can lead the pipeline to break down and burst; a buildup of unreleased painful feelings can lead to emotional breakdown.
Navigating our emotions isn’t a choice between avoiding and denying any emotion that doesn’t seem to match up with what we think we’re supposed to be feeling or immediately acting out our emotions and making all our decisions based on what we happen to be feeling at the moment.
Feelings don’t fall into categories of good and bad. There isn’t a right or wrong way to feel. Of course, feelings can be confusing and uncomfortable, but experiencing the full range of emotions is a natural part of being human. It is far more constructive to use our feelings as a source of information instead of a measurement of our worth.
When we identify and acknowledge our feelings, we are recognizing our own experience for what it is instead of what we think it should be. Our emotions carry a lot of valuable information about our thoughts and beliefs, our backgrounds and relationships, our desires and needs. We just need to be willing to pay attention. Learning to recognize our feelings helps us get to know ourselves more deeply, understand what we’re currently experiencing, and authentically choose our response.
It’s easier said than done to choose my response instead of reacting and to face my feelings with curiosity rather than criticism, but with practice it’s starting to come more naturally. Want to know some exercises that have helped me along the way? Click here to get access to the resource library.
I’d love to hear…how do your feelings impact your decisions and actions? What’s your biggest challenge in dealing with emotions? What do you find most helpful?