Most of us try to avoid uncomfortable emotions. Who likes to feel sad, depressed, lonely, hurt, scared or betrayed? Don’t we try to NOT feel this way? Some may even engage in unhealthy behaviors to avoid their emotions. I encountered this as a common theme in my work at drug and alcohol rehab facilities. Though it may be unpleasant, I propose that if we want to feel the comfortable emotions in life, we have to get good at feeling the ones that are not so comfortable.
It is important to realize that uncomfortable emotions are not bad. We all experience a myriad of emotions; some make us feel better than others. Because of the discomfort that comes with some, many try to avoid them all together, take them out on others, or deal with them in unhealthy ways. The trick to dealing with emotions in a healthy manner is not to get rid of them, but rather to embrace them and then let them go. As I work with couples or individuals in therapy, I often review three simple steps to dealing with emotions:
- Recognize: Identifying what we are feeling is the first step. If we don’t know what we are feeling, then we will not be able to do anything with it. It will unwittingly control us. When I ask a client what they are feeling they will often reply, “I’m angry.” Anger, however, is what I call a false emotion. It only exists as it attaches itself to what we originally felt. For example, if someone were to post something mean about you on social media it might make you feel hurt. What is our natural reaction to something like this? We might want to lash out at that person. This is us embracing anger instead of hurt. In this case, the anger covers up the hurt and offers the illusion that it is protecting us—that it is keeping us safe from future hurt—when all it is doing is making it so that we remain hurt. Anger is insatiable. It can never be satisfied. Have you ever felt good after embracing your anger? No. We feel even more angry. That is why I call anger a false emotion. Let anger be the first sign that you are actually feeling something else. Ask yourself the question, “What am Ireally feeling?” in order to recognize your true emotions.
- Feel: This is the hardest step. After we have recognized that we feel hurt, for example, we usually don’t want to embrace that feeling. This goes back to not wanting to feel uncomfortable feelings. When we allow ourselves to feel these emotions, we then have power to do something with them. Consider the following example: You have a couch in your house that you really detest. This is the ugliest, most horrible piece of furniture ever created. It is so ugly that no one will touch it. How do you handle it? You can’t magically make it disappear—you actually have to pick it up and move it yourself. It seems ironic that in order to move something out of your house that you don’t like, you actually have to get closer to it and touch it. The same goes for our emotions. When we feel them (get closer to them, touch them, pick them up) then we have the power to do something with them.
- Cope: This is the step most people want to skip straight to. We want to cope with or let go of our emotions without feeling them. But doing this can get us into trouble. When we try to cope with our emotions without first picking them up, what we are really doing is distracting ourselves from feeling something uncomfortable. This is similar to taking a blanket and covering the ugly couch in our house—it’s still there! What we choose to distract ourselves with (i.e., social media, pornography, substances, food, work) then becomes our go-to every time we feel uncomfortable, and an addiction is born. Coping with an emotion involves not forcing it to leave and not forcing it to stay. We let it go after it has run its course. Then we can do something that helps us recover—such as reading a book or talking with a friend.
Learning to deal with uncomfortable emotions can feel counterintuitive at times. Our initial response may be to react with anger or push them away. But, as we practice embracing our feelings in order to let them go, we will develop habits that will improve our emotional health and overall internal peace.
Originally published on Utah Valley Health and Wellness
Written by: Triston Morgan, PhD, LMFT
Dr. Morgan is a director and co-owner of Center for Couples and Families, a counseling center, in Utah Valley. He is licensed as a PhD marriage and family therapist, and is originally from Oregon. He and his beautiful wife, Cristina, love to travel and see the world.