Why It’s Actually Great to Let Yourself Feel (Like Sh*t)

Feelings. I was hesitant to write about this subject because it is so vast there is no real way to comprehensively cover it. But then I thought about what I have recently learned and felt that even writing about a small slice of this topic could be useful to others. So here goes.

There’s a saying “The first step is admitting you have a problem.” My opinion: that saying works equally well when swapping the word problem for feeling. “The first step is admitting you have a feeling.” Because I would be willing to bet that just as many of us are denying are feelings as are denying our problems. And I don’t think it’s out of stubbornness or arrogance or even out of fear – though those probably all play some part. But I think a lot of people – definitely I know I do – likely deny their feelings out of habit.

First a little context for why this post at this time. The last six months for me have been sort of atypically full of exploration, new experiences, self-reflection and growth. Along the way, I’ve experienced all sorts of feelings – some great, some terrible. This will sound funny, but the “great” feelings have been no big deal. I’ve enjoyed feeling great, of course, but those good feelings don’t result in any kind of self-reflection, and, for better or for worse, I don’t really pay attention to them for very long. They come, and they go. It’s the “negative”* feelings that are the little trouble makers for me. Because not only are the negative feelings unpleasant, but they also have what is referred to in some circles as the “second arrow” effect, which, simplified, is basically “feeling bad about feeling bad.” Real nice.

I can say pretty confidently that I am queen of the second arrow effect (I realize this is no great achievement). My usual way of dealing with “difficult” emotions is to talk (and talk and talk) about them to my friends/family until I am so sick of dwelling on it I finally move on to some other topic. Instead of relaxing and letting myself actual feel the feeling – to notice it and let it have it’s time in the sun – I set my little brain to work trying to distract myself or talk myself out of it (maybe even by boring it to death…) 😉 And then, as if that isn’t bad enough, at the same time I am feeling terrible, I also tack on feeling anxious or frustrated or upset or ashamed (the worst!) about the fact that I am feeling badly.

Then, my second arrow thoughts are: “Why is this bothering me so much?” “What can I do to stop feeling this way?” “If I was stronger (more confident, more mature, more evolved, more-more-more), this wouldn’t be bugging me so much.” “Is this bothering me more than it would bother other people?” You get the idea – not super loving… or constructive. And, ironically, that see-saw of feeling bad and then feeling bad about feeling bad just makes whatever negative emotion I am having linger… indefinitely.

This is why it has been truly a life-changing experience to have recently (finally) learned a new way: to learn how to acknowledge and allow my negative/uncomfortable feelings to just be. This new way of being is so easy it is almost mind-boggling that it isn’t part of basic grade-school curriculum. I am pretty sure this is basically a very simplified version of Buddhism, but whatever it is, it works. Every human could benefit from knowing this “trick” – and so I am going to tell you how you do it:

  1. Identify the feeling you are having (sadness, anger, fear, worry/anxiety, ennui, hopelessness, boredom, etc.)
  2. Give that feeling your attention. That is, sit for at least a minute and let it just take up space in your brain.
  3. Allow that feeling to be, being careful to not try to change it our push it away or judge it as good or bad*
  4. Watch/notice that feeling vanish or morph into something else
  5. Give that new feeling your attention for at least a minute. Notice and allow it.
  6. Repeat these steps for a few minutes until you are ready to stop or you notice your feelings have evolved into something more neutral or even pleasant.
  7. Marvel at the new-found knowledge that even “negative” feelings are never permanent. They morph and vanish often as quickly as they come – especially when you allow them to be.

See? It really is so simple (incredible, really) that when it was first explained to me, I was skeptical. How was giving attention to my negative feelings going to help me? It made no sense. In fact, it seemed crazy. But, shortly after learning about it as a technique, I tried it, and it was like a veil had been lifted. Holy shit, it actually worked. I could not believe that something as simple as just sitting still with my feelings could actual have such a profound effect on my life. All of the sudden I didn’t feel so worried (or scared or angry or frustrated or ashamed) of feeling bad. Now, feeling bad seemed like a temporary and very livable situation, which meant that feeling bad was not something I need to run away from or try to talk (talk-talk) myself out of. It was amazing.

We are living through some intense times. There is so much happening in the world-at-large, let alone in each of our own lives, that sometimes it can feel like the easiest way to deal with a tough feeling is to ignore it, or run away from it, or distract ourselves with something more positive/fun/numbing. And don’t get me wrong, I still use these activities as a way of coping with tough emotions. But I have found that if I can notice when I am feeling a difficult feeling, and give it some attention, even in the midst of challenging circumstances, the feeling dissipates, and I go back to a state of calm – sometimes even happiness – no coping mechanism necessary. And I wish the same for you.

If you have tried this technique or you have another way of working through your feelings, I would love to hear about it. Please comment below.

*Note about labeling feelings as negative or positive: Because most people accept that “negative” is synonymous with “bad” and, therefore, something to be avoided, labeling a feeling as “negative/bad” automatically results in a resistant or defensive mindset. This is the opposite of the calm/peaceful mindset that is helpful when processing a feeling. Therefore, when it comes to feelings, a more gentle/peaceful approach would be to remove the positive/negative label, and let it just be “a feeling.”

photo of ennui cartoon - annelovescoffeemore
“I’d love to have lunch with you, but I can’t because I already have plans with ennui.”

About The Author

Anne Stericker

City-dweller, designer, writer and lifestyle consultant practicing the art of living well in the 21st Century. Fixated with good coffee, great design, and any little thing that makes life better.

4 COMMENTS

  1. Dr. Notadoctor | 26th Oct 16

    In addition to the clever cartoon, this is an insightful essay. You impress me with your self-discovery and embrace of the about face. I did a lot of this at Canyon Ranch a decade ago; I wish I had shared this strategy with you then.
    Something that struck me was your comment about not paying attention to the great feeling for very long. In addition to your work with the other feelings in your life, may I suggest you revel in the good ones! Give them some legs! Combined with transitioning your feelings into calm/peaceful mindset, you can heighten your delight in the positive, which may, in turn, enable you to stop the instant negative mindset reaction in the first place….
    Most fondly,
    Dr. Notadoctor

    • Anne Stericker | 26th Oct 16

      Dear Notadoctor,
      In spite of not being trained in the medical profession, your comment is very insightful – and welcome! also, I send you many virtual kisses.

  2. Larry Spinak | 26th Oct 16

    Great essay, Anne. I use the following acronym to deal with stress, but it really applies to all emotional states:

    RAIN – another way to pause and be mindful of an experience rather than lost in it
    Recognize – realize you are having a “feeling”
    Accept – accept it for what it is; don’t try to shrug it off, just let it be.
    Investigate it with mindfulness (not analyzing it intellectually; just letting yourself feel how it feels, can be helpful to bring mindful attention to the corresponding body sensation, exploring what is the experience of stress, anxiety, etc. in the body?)
    Non-identify Impersonal experience– a passing condition, not who you are. Realize that you are not your emotion; it is a passing state.

    Also, it reminds me of this poem, “Because Even the Word Obstacle Is An Obstacle” by Alison Luterman. Your essay reminds me not to tag an emotion as bad or negative, but just to accept it and be with it, until it moves on:
    http://www.poemhunter.com/best-poems/alison-luterman/because-even-the-word-obstacle-is-an-obstacle/

    • Anne Stericker | 27th Oct 16

      Thank you, Larry! As usual, your comment/feedback is spot on! Thank you, thank you!

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