It may not seem like bad feelings have any purpose but they do. Painful emotions act as the “springs and shock absorbers" of life. What if cars didn’t have springs and shock absorbers? Then every bump in the road would be transmitted directly to the people inside. Going anywhere would be so jarring that we wouldn’t venture to the grocery store. Emotional potholes can be every bit as painful. We Humans, need ways to soften the impact of emotional jolts, and bad feelings are the best ones we have.
When we are unable to achieve something we desperately want, we feel sad for a while, then, hopefully, come to acceptance and are able to restart in some new direction. When we lose a relationship, it is the same. When someone hurts us, we may feel angry. Sharing our anger with someone who understands makes it lessen. Soon we are able to put our feelings aside and go on with life. The process of going through the bad feeling is what makes it possible to come to acceptance. And acceptance is what allows us to redirect and restart our life.
When we avoid feeling our bad feelings, then, instead of stretching the impact of what happened over time, the process becomes frozen in place. Whatever the avoidance mechanism, drugs, holding onto fantasy, hating, acting out our feelings, or any other, the end result is that acceptance doesn’t happen and in at least one area of life, we stay stuck.
One of the great discoveries of psychology over the past few decades is that we have to feel our bad feelings in order to heal them. That’s why exposure therapy insists on the full emotional experience. Other therapies have incorporated this principle for even longer. For example, experiential therapies use techniques to make emotional experience real and psychodynamic and relational therapies bring out feelings in the therapy relationship. What they all take into account is that actually feeling our feelings in a visceral way is what makes healing possible. The neural mechanisms of this healing (reconsolidation and extinction) are now understood down to the level of their biochemistry. What science has discovered is that when we fully experience our painful emotions in a context of safety and connection, synapses are modified and healing takes place.
Are there ways in which bad feelings can be experienced over and over without healing? Yes. The mind sometimes finds ways to go through the motions of healing without actually doing the work. That is one of the places therapists can help. They can help identify ways in which the healthy processing of feelings might have gotten sidetracked, so that what looks like healing is not producing results. If you are not experiencing a progressive lessening of bad feelings, then it is a good idea to ask if something is blocking a healing process. But most of the time, what feels like facing a feeling really is.
People ask me if emotional healing really works. It does. Each time we experience a bit of bad feeling in a context of understanding, empathy and safety, then we can think that a chunk of our stuck pain has been processed and will not cause trouble again. That is how the processing of bad feelings helps us spread the shocks of life out over time and helps us absorb their impact without doing damage.
Jeffery Smith MD