This is How Positive Change Happens…
When people initially contact me to do counselling and therapy, they often say: “I want to work on how to deal with my emotions”. That’s a worthwhile goal because our emotions are a hugely significant part of our lives and they can definitely be hard to deal with.
The first step I offer is a different view of our emotions:
Maybe our emotions don’t need to be dealt with. What they do need is more willingness to be worked with rather than against or suppressed.
How do we do that?
We can choose to practice – over and over again – accepting, validating, and tolerating our emotions. Not just a little. Not in a way that’s immediately followed by quickly moving on to bigger and better (and less unpleasant) things. Our emotions such as anger, sadness, and fear need to be identified, accepted, connected with, and tolerated. This process can be really challenging. In theory, it might make sense. Doing it can be monumental.
It takes a lot of courage, effort, and support for us to accurately identify what we’re actually feeling, deep down, and then to accept it and validate it. When we try to do so, our defense mechanisms often block us from feeling our emotional pain. They fire so rapidly we sometimes don’t even know it’s happening. For example, when connecting with an emotion or a feeling like anger or sadness, after a second or two, we may find ourselves saying something like “I feel like my partner/parent thinks I’m…”. Once we do that, we’re no longer dealing with our actual feeling. We’re no longer feeling it because going into a thought about our partner/parent in that moment is a defense mechanism that blocks us or defends against us having to feel our feeling anymore. We might tolerate directly working with our feelings for a few seconds but then our defenses kick in. That’s okay. That’s normal. And an important part of the counselling and therapy process is getting the support we need to build our ability to tolerate our emotions longer.
But, what’s the point of that?
Our emotions communicate important information to us. Our emotions let us know how life is affecting us. They let us know how we’re being impacted by life. Our emotions let us know how our needs are being met in our relationships. Even though they can be very painful, our emotions are there for good reason. They are not something to get rid of of. Our emotions let us know that we have feelings about some interaction with another human being or an event. We’re supposed to have emotional responses to experiences in life. Those feelings are there to be expressed and to inform us about adaptive action to take. Our emotions mobilize us, if we let them, to help us to improve our lives.
Think about it…no progressive human rights movement of any kind would have ever occurred in human history if people didn’t feel emotions about being treated unfairly. Feeling the emotions of anger or sadness about being treated unfairly (and worse) is beyond 100% legitimate and those emotions inform and mobilize people to make change for the better. That beautiful and powerful phenomenon is gratefully happening in people every day, everywhere on this planet.
Although our emotions can be hard to tolerate, they are not problems to be solved, fixed, gotten rid of, stuffed down, or pushed away.
Given the chance, they are our loyal and precious best friends.