Have you ever been told that you should or shouldn’t feel a certain way?
- “Don’t be upset; I’m sure they didn’t mean anything by it.”
- “You shouldn’t feel guilty about that.”
- “You should feel grateful.”
- “There’s really no need to get angry.”
Sound familiar? From a very young age, many of us are taught to suppress our negative feelings. Whether it’s a parent trying to stop a child crying or a teacher trying to break up an argument, we learn early on that it’s ‘not civilised’ (read, ‘wrong’) to display negative emotions—and it’s better not to have those feelings in the first place. It’s ok to feel happy, glad or grateful, but there isn’t room in polite society for anything less upbeat.
However, we’ve all experienced uncomfortable, negative or upsetting events and we all have feelings about those events.
Suppressing feelings can lead to unwanted consequences. When we don’t acknowledge a feeling and allow ourselves to fully experience it, it doesn’t get processed and it can leave a ‘residue’. Over time, these residues build up, which we can experience as a background (or sometimes very much foreground!) feeling of awkwardness, anxiety, anger… When we bury emotions, what we can’t suppress is the nagging feeling that there’s something wrong—and that informs how we live our lives every day: “There’s something wrong with other people / with this situation / with my life / with me.”
Some of the ways we might cope with those nagging feelings include exercise, meditation or spending time in nature. Or, they might include less helpful behaviours, such as numbing our feelings with drinking alcohol or watching TV.
The most efficient way of dealing with an uncomfortable emotion is to address it. Process it (through talking, writing, painting, therapy, EFT, or whatever works for you) or act on it (e.g. “I’ve decided it’s worth going through the upheaval of finding a new job because when I really sit with my feelings for a couple of minutes I realise my current job is ‘killing me’ because it is so far removed from my values and how I choose to live.” Or, “I’m just not going to tolerate the way that team-member behaves; it’s time to escalate.” Or, “I’m going to get up 30 minutes earlier to take the dog for a walk because it makes me feel good.”).
Once it’s processed, it’s done. We’re then free to exist in the present and enjoy our lives. Of course, uncomfortable feelings will continue to arise as we go through life—just rinse and repeat
A table shouldn’t feel. An adjustable spanner shouldn’t feel. We should. We’re designed to feel. Our feelings are a barometer of what’s going on in our lives—they’re a vital feedback mechanism that we need to attune ourselves to. When we’re feeling uncomfortable, something’s going on that needs our attention. When we’re feeling threatened, there’s probably a good reason (or there’s an over-reaction that needs to be addressed instead of suppressed).
We’re human beings, but maybe a more accurate description should be ‘human feelings’, because feelings are behind everything we do.
- Choose your method of processing (see above). Explore some options and do whatever works for you.
- Get in touch with your feelings. Find a free hour and explore your mind. Notice what comes up—or more to the point notice what you’re trying to suppress. (Set aside a regular time to do this. You’ll find that the more residue you clear, the quicker the process is, so you might end up only needing 5 minutes a day. Be clear, this is an ongoing process—one that you might even learn to enjoy.)
- Once you’ve processed a difficult event and the resulting feelings, move on. Dwelling makes us feel worse. The aim is to clear out that residue so you’re free to enjoy life.
N.B. Practise self care. None of us is perfect, so if we’ve ever taken any risks, or lived our life even to a fraction of our potential, there’ll be things in our past that we find challenging to think about. If we’re doing this exercise properly, it’s going to feel deeply uncomfortable (for a short time, at least). Do whatever you need to support yourself. If something comes to the surface that feels too overwhelming, scary or upsetting, seek professional help.
Let me know how you get on.