When our biggest emotions come knocking — anger, sadness, grief, fear — it can be difficult to let them in. It may feel easier to ignore them, reject them, avoid them, or numb them than to face them, welcome them, and address them. But why is that? Why is it so difficult to accept difficult feelings? What happens to us when we come face to face with so much discomfort?
1. We judge ourselves for feeling the feeling. You may not welcome a feeling because of the story or judgment you attach to it. A person feeling sad may recall being told to "suck it up" as a child and thus feel that their sadness is a sign of weakness. A person feeling angry may recall being labeled "out of control" when they got upset, leading them to feel self-judgment every time anger flares up.
These sorts of judgment often stem from childhood. Children who are rebuffed by their caregivers when they feel sad or angry or overwhelmed may learn that certain feelings make them unloveable and learn to hold them in. Children told to be grateful for the roof over their heads when they feel sad may learn that only extreme circumstances deserve negative emotional responses. These beliefs become ingrained in a person’s schema about the world and leave little room to accept difficult feelings.
2. We receive outside judgment for feeling the feeling. In addition to internal judgment about our emotional experience, we may face external judgment. If we are surrounded by family members, friends, and romantic partners who respond poorly to our feelings, we may try to prevent them from happening. Surrounding ourselves with loved ones who are open to all sorts of emotional expression and can offer validation and support will help us become more open to our own experiences.
3. We worry that the feeling will never end. Difficult emotions may feel endless. The overwhelm of the experience makes us fear that if we start to cry, we may never stop. That fear leads us to find ways to fight it — doing anything we can not to feel that feeling. But here’s the reality about feelings: They end. Feelings pass. Like waves, they crest and retreat. In fact, staving off a feeling can often prolong suffering because you never give yourself a chance to experience, process, and metabolize the emotion. You can’t move past something until you move through it.
4. We never learned healthy coping skills as children. A person must learn to endure and process a difficult feeling in order to welcome it. If a person feels ill-equipped to face an emotion, they may rebuff it. Learning about and regulating emotions is a primary developmental task in childhood.
Children whose early caregivers never helped them work through their feelings and did not model good emotional regulation may grow into adults who find the prospect of feeling difficult feelings overwhelming. Children need to see the adults in their lives managing difficult emotional experiences in healthy ways and feel supported when they themselves express unruly feelings. Without these experiences, as adults, they will have no roadmap for identifying their emotions, verbalizing their experience, accepting the feeling, and coping with it in healthy, effective ways. They may not have the skills to both honor the immediate experience and put the feeling in perspective.
What is the antidote?
Take a baby step. Notice the judgment you attach to the feeling. Remind yourself that feelings have a beginning, a middle, and an end. Probe your history — were difficult feelings treated with care in your family? Did you learn how to work through difficulties with loving, supportive caregivers? Look at the people in your life — do you surround yourself with loving, supportive people that welcome your anxieties and pains? This is the beginning of the work to stop avoiding and start accepting your tough feelings.
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