From the time that we are children, many of us are told things such as, “Don’t cry,” and “There’s nothing to be sad about.” As a culture we are often taught that we should try to avoid unpleasant emotions at all costs. Thus, for many, the primary impulse when they are experiencing unpleasant emotions is to try to escape from those feelings through alcohol, drugs, restricting food, binging, busyness, compulsive sex, or a variety of other self-harming behaviors.
I believe that it is far healthier to “lean into” your experiences of pain, rather than trying to numb your emotions.
Here are three reasons why it is important to allow yourself to process and experience your true feelings.
1. When you numb sadness, you also numb happiness and joy.
The reality is that you cannot selectively numb emotions. Using negative behaviors to avoid your feelings may help you experience less sadness and anger, but they also stop you from feeling happiness and joy. Part of the amazing thing about being human is that we are able to have a range of emotions. Experiencing sadness and hurt is part of what makes it so incredible to feel joy and happiness.
Think of your feelings as waves in the ocean. They come and go, rise and fall. No feeling lasts forever; anger and sadness are necessary, helpful parts of the human experience. Additionally, all of our emotions contain gifts and help us grow as people.
2. Struggling with your emotions often leads to more suffering.
Trying to fight our feelings often leads to more suffering. Using negative behaviors to try to numb our feelings is akin to putting a Band-Aid on a gaping wound. They might make you feel better temporarily, but these behaviors do not “fix” the underlying problem. Further, using negative coping strategies to numb emotions causes people to feel even worse in the long term.
Rather than trying to suppress your feelings, work to be a mindful observer of them. Notice the emotions that you experience and where you feel them in your body. Then, try to cultivate a curious and nonjudgmental stance. Our emotions are often messengers which signal something important that we need to pay attention to.
Let’s say that you see a friend pursuing their life-long dream of writing a book and you are filled with jealously. If you take a moment to get curious about what this emotion might be telling you, you may discover that you too are passionate about the pursuit of writing. Or perhaps you are filled with anger and resentment towards a partner. Often feelings of resentment are the result of someone not respecting your boundaries, or an indication that you are not effectively communicating your needs.
3. Processing and experiencing your feelings is part of having a full life.
Anyone in the throes of an eating disorder, addiction, workaholism, or sex addiction can tell you that constantly trying to run from your emotions is exhausting. When you are focused on numbing your feelings rather than processing them and using healthy coping strategies, you prevent yourself from living a full and meaningful life. Hurt, frustration, pain, sadness, and anger are all natural and healthy parts of the human experience. When we try to suppress these emotions, we are unable to thrive. Part of having a full life is feeling all of your emotions, both pleasant and unpleasant. It is beaming with joy, and feeling like your heart is full of gratitude during some moments; it is also experiencing heartbreak and disappointment, and truly letting yourself sit with these feelings.
An integral component of being able to cope with emotions is the practice of self-compassion, which is simply treating and responding to yourself the way you would a loved one who was sad or struggling. You deserve to extend to yourself the same kindness that you would to others that you love. Beating yourself up for feeling sad, anxious, or scared often serves to make you feel even worse. Instead, work to say kind and gentle things to yourself and engage in compassionate acts of self-care.
Experiencing your emotions and being vulnerable with the people that you trust is a sign of true strength, not a weakness. Ultimately, the way to heal and move through painful experiences is to let yourself feel. You can do this by writing in a journal, through artwork, talking to a friend, or seeking help from a therapist—there are so many healthy ways to process your emotions.
Of course there are times (i.e. if you are at work or school) when it is not always feasible to process your feelings in the moment, which is when you can employ healthy distraction or coping strategies. Later, it is still important to process your feelings when you are in a better place to do so. Ultimately, you deserve to let yourself experience all of your emotions, and to treat yourself with kindness and care.