Everyone experiences painful feelings from time to time. This is a normal part of the human experience, just as joy and excitement are part of being human. Times of sorrow, grief, despair and fear are unavoidable. In spite of the fact that experiencing these painful feelings is normal, many of us have spent a lifetime trying to avoid feeling them.
When painful feelings come, we want them to go away. Some people try to push these feelings down by blinking back the tears. Others try to move away from the pain by focusing on something else, constantly keeping busy, or trying to convince themselves they are being irrational. Some people try to numb the pain in a more extreme way, by using drugs or alcohol. Still others allow only their anger to come out by becoming physical, yelling, or demeaning others while suppressing painful feelings.
Unfortunately, there is a major drawback to avoiding feelings. The risk is that, without getting the painful feelings out, they will remain inside of us. Instead of experiencing these feelings and moving on, we hold them inside and carry them around while they show up again and again. These painful feelings may be present every day disguised as chronic anger, chronic illness, stoicism, depression, and/or anxiety. Unrelated events may trigger the painful feelings we have avoided. Can you think of a time when your reaction was much greater than the situation warranted? How many times have you and your spouse gotten into a huge argument about something “so stupid” or that later you couldn’t even remember what you were arguing about? These irrational responses were buried painful feelings that came rushing out after being triggered by a “small” event.
We were all born with the capacity to experience all of our feelings, however, many of us learned to bottle them up. Think back to the messages you picked up as a child. Your parents, your peers, or the media may have said, “Boys don’t cry.” “Cheer up. It’s OK.” or “There’s nothing to be afraid of.” Your caregivers may have communicated similar messages non-verbally, with a look or gesture that showed disapproval. Or perhaps the people you grew up with didn’t show or talk about their feelings. For example, you may have never seen your parents cry or get angry.
In spite of the messages we may have received, it is important to experience your painful feelings. You can tolerate feeling them. It may be a scary experience, but you will survive it. Feeling sorrow, fear, and despair at times is normal and okay. It is necessary to experience these feelings so they can be released. And, you can decide how to release them.
The first step in experiencing painful feelings is to notice what is going on inside of you. Identify what it is you are feeling by naming it. Is it disappointment, grief, fear, loneliness, rejection, shame or another feeling? If it is anger you identify, notice what other feelings are underneath the anger. Pay attention to what is going on inside your body. Are there areas of tension, pain or other sensations? These sensations are where the feelings live in your body. The next step is to find a safe way to express the feelings. Healthy ways to release your feelings are by:
• talking about your feelings with someone who’ll listen to you, such as a spouse, friend, or therapist,
• writing about the feelings,
• creating music or art,
• sitting with the feelings with your attention turned toward them, or
I am not suggesting that you should turn toward the sadness and feel sad the rest of your life or that you should feel the fear and it overcomes your life. Rather, experience the pain and move forward. Amazingly, most feelings only last an average of six minutes!
Even though you may have received messages that painful feelings are not okay, all humans were born with the ability to feel the whole range of our emotions from elation to despair. Figuring out how to to do this is an important part of growing into a mature adult. Life becomes much more peaceful and joyful when we notice how we’re really feeling, release it, and move on.
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