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When Feelings Drive You to Distraction, Turn Toward Them

Embracing rather than rejecting "unacceptable" emotions can change them.

Key points

  • People tend to try to ignore, override or talk themselves out of feelings they don’t feel they should have
  • ”Erroneous” feelings that keep returning may be trying to convey some important information.
  • Turning toward them, accepting them, and listening to them, without sinking into them, can help you release them

If you’ve ever gone to a dream workshop or sought out a healing psychedelic experience, you’ve probably heard this advice: If you have a monster pursuing you, stop running, turn around and find out what it wants from you. The point is, whatever is scaring us from within is already a part of who we are and therefore won’t kill us. (In fact, it can’t.) Rather, it has something to tell us that we need to hear.

But you don’t need to have a nightmare or drink ayahuasca for this to happen. Most of us get scared by something inside of us on a regular basis. We feel something that we don’t want to feel, and then think “I’d better not feel that way.” And little by little, we find that we’re in conflict with something within ourselves. If the feeling’s strong enough, you might even feel like something is staring at you, its round white eyes glowing from behind the bushes. You begin to inch away from it, and you see its eyes narrow menacingly, its haunches readying themselves to spring. You turn and run, and it’s after you, following behind you, trying to catch you...

Okay, not all ignored feelings are like this. Many if not most just evaporate when the moment passes. But then there are those feelings that bug you, and bug you, and bug you, and won’t go away: The fears. The angers and resentments. The “petty” hurts and jealousies. Your insecurity and inferiority complex around your co-worker. The surly feeling you get about your life going to work on Monday morning.

All the feelings you know you shouldn’t have.

But you have them anyway.

You probably spend a lot of time working on being reasonable and not letting these feelings get the best of you. But if you have a feeling (or maybe more than one) that is driving you crazy, let us suggest you do something a little bit radical: Turn toward it.

Stop running from or arguing with a feeling you wish you didn’t have. Instead, look it in the eye and say “hello.” Accept it. Accept it as though you just discovered it’s a member of a historically oppressed minority group.

Let Go of Your Inner Conflict

Have you ever noticed that the moment you get anxious, you start getting anxious about being anxious, which makes you twice as anxious? Or, when you’re depressed, you become depressed about being depressed? Or maybe when you’re sad or scared, you get mad and disgusted with yourself for being “weak”?

Well, so what if you’re angry, or scared, or anxious, or depressed, or jealous, or too sensitive? You’re human, and therefore vulnerable to having the “wrong” feelings. This is not saying you should give in and believe the things that go through your mind when you’re “stuck” in a feeling, and hole up at home with a gallon of ice cream to soothe yourself. Rather, turning toward a feeling means accepting it calmly and nonjudgmentally as a part of you—maybe a big, scary, complicated part of you—and listening to it like you would a friend. Be open and curious about your feelings. Let them be and explore what they actually feel like inside you. What, for example, does jealousy feel like? Is it anger? Or fear? Or disguised self-judgment, that you don’t measure up?

Frequently, simply being calm and accepting of a feeling for just a few minutes can make it subside. Not being upset about getting anxious can make you less anxious. Other times, feelings carry a lot of important information for you. That’s why they’re sticking around. So turn toward the monster in your (day-)dream and ask it, “What are you here for? What do you want to tell me?” Even your least favorite, most negative feelings, if you listen to them fully and deeply enough, lead to a want or need that is positive and life-giving.

Your Feelings Have Something to Tell You

Though it may not always look like it, your feelings only want to help you. They’re like loved ones who know you intimately. They want to maximize your chances for overall fulfillment and minimize experiences of harm. They don’t have the whole story, and frequently get things wrong, but then so does your “head,” which often misinterprets them. But since they are, in effect, you — after all, you and they share the same body and nervous system — they can get agitated when you don’t answer their call most of the time and argue with them the times that you do.

There’s one type of feeling that it is ill-advised to turn toward: strong desires that you don’t want to fulfill. Desire has a way of sneaking in and taking control once it gets a foothold. If you’re feeling tempted to stray from your committed relationship, or have recently broken up with someone who you know is not good for you, or are battling an addiction, it’s not a good idea to turn toward those feelings of desire when you’re by yourself although it may be valuable to do so if you're with someone who keeps you grounded.

Another feeling that may be better not to turn toward when you're alone is intense grief. It’s better to find comfort in others if you can, and to take breaks from intense grief, if possible, especially when you’re alone. Still, intense grief isn’t always so polite as to stay away when you don’t want it. If it does come, give yourself as much comfort and acceptance as you can.

Aside from those scenarios, the next time you get continually “pinged” by a feeling you don’t want to have, don’t just tune it out or correct it. Hear it out. Let it be. Sit down with it. Give it 10 minutes to tell you its story, make its case, and feel understood. There could be something it tells you that really is valuable for you to know. At the very least, it will probably become a lot easier to live with.