capturing the beautiful calamity of healing in therapy

The Necessity of Feeling the Feelings

The other day, while running one of my substance abuse groups, we began talking about accepting emotions and the difficulty of “experiencing a feeling for exactly what it is.”  Inevitably, any time we broach this kind of subject, the overwhelming response is something along the lines of, I do X, Y, Z to avoid feeling bad feelings.

What exactly makes a feeling “bad” when they are, inherently, neutral and organic impulses? I suppose it comes down to discomfort and our persistent desire to avoid it. Discomfort hurts. Discomfort feels threatening. When we are uncomfortable, we become more hyperaware of our surroundings and safety; we are more aligned with our limitations and inadequacies. Essentially, we are in a weakened position. Feelings that resemble discomfort are feelings we don’t want to have. We will go to extreme lengths to avoid these feelings: we will drown ourselves with alcohol, distract ourselves with work or television or fantasy worlds; we will ruminate on the past or live in the future. We will do anything we can to avoid what is happening right here, right now.

The thing about feelings, though, is that our bodies and souls don’t really care whether or not we want to feel them. They are there for a valid reason, and they are intrinsic signals responding the stimuli within and outside of us. Just like hunger and fatigue and even cramps and soreness, feelings are a bodily sign that something is happening in the body, something that needs to be attended to. Just because you ignore the empty stomach doesn’t mean the hunger will disappear. Our bodies give us the signals we need, and that includes feelings.

We have to let go of this limiting and incorrect assumption of good versus bad emotions. Emotions just are. There isn’t a right or wrong, better or worse. The full range is necessary to experience full life. We are designed to have feelings! Otherwise, why would our evolutionary consciousness develop them? We are meant to experience. Without pain, there cannot be pleasure and without feeling, there cannot be true experiencing.

Let’s take sadness. That one hurts. But why does it hurt? It hurts because it represents connection and subsequent loss. It hurts because it means we care about something, because we have meaning for something, and without meaning, we would be numb, distant, and robotic. As children, we may have experienced sadness when our mother left. Without her, we felt briefly scared and lost. What was that signifying? That we loved and trusted someone else! That we could depend on someone else! That we were capable of building and creating secure attachments! As long as we are immortal, there will be loss, and as long as we feel sad when we experience that, we will know we have loved, cared, and connected.

What about anger? That’s another emotion people typically resist and suppress. Anger, however, is a powerful symbol  of our own identities and our own needs. It means, in some general sense, we feel threatened and unsafe. Someone or something has betrayed, hurt, or rejected us. Anger means we care about ourselves! It is a blaring announcement that an important need has not been met or a significant conflict has not been resolved. Without anger, how can we have a strong sense of self? How can we know who to trust, what to desire, or how to cope in this world? Anger means we have needs. Anger means we know what we want and we believe we are worthy enough to have it. When people say, oh, I never get angry, maybe they mean, oh I never have needs…and that doesn’t seem very conducive, does it?

At the root of them all, I believe, is fear. Fear has its uncanny ability to thread into every emotion, clouding our thoughts, manifesting in severe anxieties and emotional paralysis. Most of us wish we could live in a world devoid of fear. But, fear, however, can be incredibly grounding. It is the necessary speed bump and highway patrolman on the road life, reminding us that we cannot drive 100 mph through a dangerous intersection! Fear is an invaluable teacher about the complexities of the world. Without fear, we would die out as a human species. This emotion keeps us prepared and alert; it helps us plan and allocate the best resources to assure our success. Fear means we are a human and we want to do whatever we can to stay alive. Fear means we value safety, and thus, we value life.

To feel is to actively participate in the world. It is to respect the inner workings of your soul; it is a representation that you are human and not a robot or computer. Instead of berating ourselves for feeling a certain way, we need to ask ourselves what our feelings are trying to tell us. To deny that is to deny the self. When we criticize ourselves for a feeling a particular way, we are basically saying, no you don’t matter. No, you’re not important. No, I’m not going to pay attention to you right now. No, THIS IS WRONG.

Feelings cannot be wrong. Maybe we can improve HOW we manage the feelings, but we cannot disregard those initial responses. Whether we like them or not, they are here to stay. So let’s make room for them. will pass, as all feelings do, like waves crashing on the shore. When we ride them out, we experience them. Let it out. Whatever it is. The anger, the sadness, the joy, the fear. So often we are discouraged from this precious experience. Don’t cry. Don’t be too happy! Don’t be scared! Calm down! Cheer up!

Most of us received those messages as children. They are engrained in our modern society, and, unfortunately, they are detrimental. They encourage suppression, minimization, rationalization, and denial. They encourage us to lie to ourselves and, inadvertently, lie to the world. If you want to really live, if you want to really love, if you want anything to really matter, you have to really feel.

People will always express how they learned and grew from experience and even from pain. But when’s the last time you heard someone express gratitude for being numb?