By Andrea Wachter, LMFT
One of the most important aspects of being human is the fact that we have feelings —all day long. And yet, rarely are we taught healthy ways to cope with them. Who among us learned about coping with emotions in school? And how on earth did such an important lesson get glossed over? How many of us were taught in our families that it’s healthy and healing to cry or safely express our anger? (And this is not because our parents or teachers were bad people. In most cases, it’s because they were not taught how to deal with emotions themselves!) Sure, some fortunate people had an amazing relative or teacher who was really safe and welcoming of feelings, but for the most part, that is not the common case.
Most of us were raised with well-intentioned messages to stop crying immediately (presumably so that we would feel better). Little did our innocent caregivers know that telling us not to cry, or giving us a cookie or a bottle every time we were sad, might give our little brains the message that expressing sadness is not okay and we should keep it down.
As for anger, most of us were told to go to our rooms and come out when we were ready to behave. Again, well-intentioned and likely meant to help us be good rather than what it really did — which was teach us to hold in our anger (which then leaks out later in inappropriate ways or “leaks in” on ourselves in the form of self-criticism, depression or addiction).
So what do we do with feelings if we are not going to stuff them down or blast them out in hurtful or destructive ways? How do we cope with emotions so they do not transform and manifest into addictions, anxiety or depression? Well, I’m glad you asked!
For those of you who never got the lesson on Emotions 101, here are the basics:
In the same way that there are primary colors and secondary colors, human beings have four primary emotions and many secondary ones. The four primary emotions are: sadness, anger, fear and happiness (with an array of variations on each, for example, irritation and rage are lesser and greater degrees of anger).
Our natural state is to be present and at peace. Then when a feeling arises, if we are healthy and not lost in depression, obsession or addiction, we experience and express that feeling and then return to peace and presence. Just look at children. They are in the present moment. When a feeling is triggered they may need to cry or have a tantrum. If their feelings are welcomed, acknowledged and validated, and they are done fully expressing their emotions, they move back to being present again.
Sounds simple enough, right? But coming from a culture that is addicted to the pursuit of happiness and avoidant of the more challenging emotions, most of us are taught at a very young age to stuff down our feelings. We are too often fed or given a pacifier when we are sad, or scolded and sent to our rooms when we are mad. So many of us have been taught that there are good and bad feelings when in truth, all feelings are natural and need to be expressed safely. And when they are, they naturally move through us. It’s when we stuff them down and/or blast them out that we end up getting into trouble. (And by trouble, I mean feeling depressed, obsessed or addicted to something.)
Depression, anxiety, addiction and obsessive thinking are all good attempts to avoid and distract from feelings but in the long run, they don’t work. Letting out our feelings in a safe manner is what helps us move through them and return to peace. It’s healing and natural to express our feelings. In fact, crying has proven health benefits. Scientists have examined and compared the tears that are produced by onions with the tears that are produced by emotions. While the tears caused by onions were made of 98 percent water, the tears that were caused by emotions contained actual toxins. So crying is actually one way the body has of healing itself. When you allow yourself to cry, you are releasing and relieving yourself of toxins! Crying also helps to remove chemicals and hormones that are stored in our body from stress. That’s why people will sometimes say they feel relieved after letting themselves cry.
Of course it’s not easy or fun to cry or to be angry, but it is essential in order to achieve emotional health. The need to express feelings is as natural as having to go to the bathroom. If we have a feeling and we hold it in, then we are not going to feel well or be well. Many of us treat our feelings as if they need to be figured out or fixed. What they really need is to be welcomed and felt.
We basically have three options once we identify that we are having a feeling:
- We can implode (i.e., stuff it down, avoid it or pretend it’s not there).
- We can explode (i.e., blast it out disrespectfully or destructively).
- We can express it safely and appropriately.
Too often, we tell ourselves that we shouldn’t have our feelings or that we shouldn’t bother anyone with them. We judge ourselves as weak. We tell ourselves we can’t talk about it or that we don’t know how. So many of us then end up using substances or obsessing on something or going into a dark place of depression in attempt to distract and numb ourselves from the feeling or in an attempt to get some comfort for it. This might work temporarily, as most distractions do, but then we end up with the same original feelings inside, plus on top of that, feeling badly about ourselves or our behavior (or lack of behavior, in the case of depression).
So let’s say you decide you want to learn how to have a healthier relationship to your emotions. What to do next? There are basically two parts: One part is about is how you let them out and the other part is about what you put back in.
In order to let your feelings out, it is important to find safe people to take your feelings to. A safe person is someone you feel accepted by and comforted from, whether that is a professional, a friend or a family member — and eventually, yourself!
The second part is learning to receive kindness, compassion and comfort for your feelings. We need to receive comfort not only from others but from ourselves as well.
It’s important to know that all emotions come in waves. Sometimes small, manageable waves. Sometimes medium-sized, and sometimes, big tidal waves. The next time you experience a wave of emotion, see if you can tell yourself that it will pass. Try saying something soothing, nurturing and comforting to yourself and/or doing something soothing (and non-harmful) for yourself. This could be talking with someone you feel safe with, journaling, drawing or creating some art to express how you feel. The key here is to find the emotion inside of you and see how it would want to come out (safely).
The more compassionate and kind you are toward yourself when you are having feelings, the sooner and more successfully those feelings will move through you. And once you are comfortable with all your emotions, there is no longer anything to avoid or fear. Whatever the feeling is, you welcome it up and return to peace and presence until the next wave comes.
We all need a safe port in a storm so that when life gets hard, we have someplace to land. For many, their “safe” place to land is obsessive thinking or checking out in some way. When you can turn to internal soothing and external support, then you always have truly safe places to land that do not leave you feeling worse afterward. And you will have learned the most important lesson in life: how to reveal and heal what you feel.