Kori Hennessy, MA, LAMFT
"I don't know how to stop feeling lonely. I miss having her close to me. It feels so awful not to be sleeping in the same bed anymore."
"The sadness is just so overwhelming. I don't know how I'll ever get through this."
I hear comments like this so often in therapy. It is my privilege to sit with people who are suffering from hurt and pain, and it is my job to help. Following each of these statements there is often another question directed at me, "How do I stop feeling this way?" I get it. That's why you're here. You want the pain to stop. You want the life you knew before the pain back. The answer I give is often not what the person I'm sitting with wants to hear, but it so important that it be said.
"Feelings can't be stopped," I say. "Emotions come and they go. Best thing we can do is get to know them."
Truth be told, there were many years that I didn't like this answer. There are still times, many times, when I struggle with this notion. Why on earth would I want to feel bad? I have a clinical supervisor who likes to say, "bad isn't a feeling." Insert eye roll emoji here. He's right, I know "bad" isn't the name of a specific emotion. However, it is one of the main reasons I don't always want to feel the feels. Sometimes it feels bad to feel sad, or angry, or jealous, or guilty, or lonely. And frankly, sometimes I just don't have time for that. I'm a busy person, so sometimes getting to know my feelings takes a back seat to picking the kids up from gymnastics, cleaning the bathrooms or writing clinical notes. Glamorous life I lead, I know.
The wisdom of my supervisor's statement isn't because he's right aout bad not being a feeling, the wisdom lies in what pushing myself to identify and name the feeling does. It helps me get to know my emotions. With most things, the better you get to know them the less scary they become and the more comfortable it feels to have them around. Since I learned that emotions come and go and I don't have much say in the matter, I've decided to spend some time getting to know my feelings. I've become friends with them...well, maybe friends is too strong of a word for some of them. I've become accepting of them.
There are some feelings that have been easier for me to accept then others. Joy, for instance. Joy and I are best buddies! I thoroughly enjoy myself when joy shows up. Joy often involves laughter, especially my children's laughter. A lot of times there's music, sometimes dancing. People seem so much friendlier when joy is in town. I appreciate the beauty in the sunset more. I feel it in my body as a long, deep breath of clean air. Gosh, I really like joy.
Then there are other feelings that I'm not very fond of. Jealousy. That's one I could do without. It starts in my stomach like a slow ache, then it moves to a tightness in my chest. I'm not crazy about the thoughts that come with it either, and there's certainly not a lot of joy around when jealousy moves in. I have more trouble getting to know this one. It just feels so...icky.
When people come to therapy they are often trying to get rid of those unwanted feelings. I have yet to have someone come in, sit on my couch and say, "Kori, I am just so darn happy all the time. There just seems to be so much joy in my life. I feel like I must be missing something. Can you help me get rid of this happiness so I can have more room for other emotions in my life?" Who would pay me to get rid of their joy? That would be silly. But people come in all the time looking to get rid of all sorts of other emotions, and that makes sense because some emotions feel bad! Sometimes, they feel so bad that we can't get out of bed, or we drink too much, or we yell at our kids, or we cut ourselves. Those are the emotions you're talking about getting rid of, the ones that keep you from acting like you. The ones that hurt so much, that feel so bad, you're afraid they'll never leave. I get it. I get it so much.
People try all sorts of things to get rid of emotions that hurt. Distractions such as work or TV. They might try to cover up the feelings with food, or shopping or alcohol. People avoid situations that bring up those feelings. They may try to control feelings with thoughts or logic, or arguments. The problem with all of these strategies is that they are a temporary fix. The emotion wants to come and go, and it will get stuck if we don't let. Get stuck and wreak havoc on our emotional brain.
This reminds me of the children's book, We're Going on a Bear Hunt. In the book, a family is searching for a bear and they come upon challenge after challenge that they can't avoid; a swamp, a river, long wavy grass. The refrain of the book becomes, "We can't go under it, we can't go over it, we're going to have to go through it." The same can be said about feelings. The only way to get through them is to go through them.
To get through them, we have to trust our ability to make it to the other side. We must have a support system in our life that says, "You can do it. I know it's scary. I know it's hard, but I also know you got this." We need to increase our knowledge and comfort with our feelings so that they don't seem so big, so that they don't cloud out all the other feelings and sensations in our world. We can do this slowly through learning to notice what goes on in our body when various emotions are present, acknowledging and naming our emotions, and breathing techniques to make space for big emotions. This takes practice and intention.
For me, though, what has been the most helpful in learning this has been patience with myself. So many times I notice myself squashing that feeling or avoiding that difficult conversation so I don't have to feel "bad." I get down on myself, I mean I am a therapist after all! I should know how to feel! Then I remind myself of a few things. I am human. Feelings are hard. They come and they will go. And I can try again.
Allow me to remind you of the same. You are human. Feelings are hard. They come and they will go. And you can try again.
Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) involves a set of skills that can help you learn how to start implementing some of these practices in your own life. Click here to learn more about ACT and to download some free articles to get you started.