Feelings Don’t Come as a ‘Pick and Mix’

Here we are, on Day 127 (in South Africa) of this very very odd season of Lockdown/Corona/New Normal/Not-the-new normal and I don’t know about you but it has been a roller coaster.

I would consider myself a fairly even person, pretty positive, and with a fairly balanced life and outlook on life, but boy oh boy, this season has made me explore that and what that means!!

Something that I have learnt in this period of time is that the way we acknowledge, name and label our emotions is really important. What I’ve seen is that we tend to label our feelings as good or bad. As if some are acceptable to feel and others are not. The problem with this thinking though is that it means that when we inevitably do feel ‘bad’ it makes us believe that we messed up, or are getting it wrong, we often feel ashamed or disappointed by these feelings because they seem to represent a fault or flaw in us or our life.

I want to offer a new way of thinking about these emotions instead, one that I regularly (and I really do mean that!) have to remind myself of and apply in my own circumstances. It is a simple re-phrasing and re-framing exercise that can make a huge impact.

Good becomes Comfortable. Bad becomes Uncomfortable.

There it is. Simple.

When we feel ‘bad’ feelings, because they (often subconsciously) signal to us that there is a big problem, it means we try to fix them, and the quicker the better. What this often means is that we try to ignore them, we distract ourselves from them and often in doing so we suppress them. Research shows that suppressed emotions never stay that way for long. Instead what happens is they leak. This could be in small but often ways – a passive aggressive comment, an irritable overreaction or an outburst of unexpected tears. Or it could be in one big explosion – perhaps an uncontrolled overwhelming rage, or a heavy feeling of depression, or unstoppable tears.

By giving ourselves space to feel the bad feelings it actually helps us to process them and therefore move through them in a more intact way.

Is it comfortable? No. It is often excruciatingly painful.

But is it bad? No.

These feelings do not damage us, they do not break us, they are just incredibly, incredibly uncomfortable. But they are also a necessary part of life. Brene Brown in her phenomenal Ted Talk on Vulnerability (if you haven’t watched it; you really should) shares how you cannot isolate your emotions. Remember those Pick and Mix sweets that you used to get when you were younger? Where you could just pick only the sweets you wanted and leave the rest? Yeah, emotions aren’t like that. Sucks right? You cannot selectively pick which emotions you want to experience this week and leave the rest behind. “You cannot selectively numb emotions. When you numb the painful emotions you also numb the positive emotions too.” (Brene Brown) If you choose not to feel rejection, you will also inadvertently be choosing not to feel love either. If you choose not to feel failure, you will also be closing yourself off from hope.

It is an uncomfortable and quite probably an unwelcome truth to face, but alas, face it we must. There is no quick fix, no silver bullet to making uncomfortable emotions go away, and the more we berate ourselves and punish ourselves for feeling them, the longer we will stay in them and the weightier they will feel. Instead, accept them, name them, allow yourself to sit in the discomfort for a while, and then let them go, allow them to pass by as you move onto a new and different emotion as you inevitably will. You will be ok.