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SALT LAKE CITY — Ah, the dreaded F word. Many fear it and try to avoid it at all costs.
In a relationship, it can cause one or both partners to fight, or run for their lives for fear of the discomfort it often brings. For some, just to hear the word spoken in its entirety causes a revulsion that can be experienced throughout the body. That word is, of course, feelings.
As a psychotherapist, it has been my experience that some people actually seem to have a phobia when it comes to talking about feelings. People often want to talk about anything but how they feel. Sometimes the fear is that talking about feelings will bring them to the surface. Many people want to avoid a public display of feelings that are seemingly "negative" or will cause them to somehow lose face.
Sometimes just the dread of the discomfort of a feeling is enough for a person to want to push it away and try to bury it deep down in hopes it will never resurface. That may work for a while. However, feelings tend to come back no matter what we try to do to get rid of them.
An important survival system
Feelings labeled as "negative" have a bad reputation of being quite unpleasant. Yes, they can be uncomfortable and painful. But the thing about feelings is they are hard-wired into our brains. They don't go away because they are supposed to be felt and they will keep coming back until they have completed the job they are meant to do.
We can push away an emotion for a time, but eventually it will come back. It's like trying to hold a beach ball under water forever. For a while, it may seem easy but eventually your arms are going to get tired and the beach ball is going to come out of the water and smack you in the face. Suppressing emotions in the short term may be more comfortable, but in the long term it hurts more.
Without feelings, we would have been in trouble as a species from the beginning. Each emotion has a different function that serves a purpose in survival. For example, fear is an alert system that lets us know we may be in danger. Our cave dwelling ancestors would have been in big trouble if they didn't have fear to guide them to know when they needed to avoid or run away from a predator.
Anger also has an important function as an alert system that lets us know that something is amiss. It energizes us to take action. Envy is useful as it can be a motivator to work hard to get what we want and need. Even sadness, one of the most pushed-away and dreaded emotions, helps us to process through feelings of loss so we can move forward in life.
Each and every emotion, whether it feels good or not, is useful and adaptive in some way. The problem is we often push the "negative" emotions away and what results is a building of energy that has nowhere to go. This causes unpleasant side effects, which can include irritability, anxiety, difficulty sleeping, muscle tension, depression, mood swings, unexplained physical symptoms such as headaches and digestive issues, relationship and communication issues, and just feeling bad.
The willingness to be uncomfortable
Now, if you are reading this and thinking "No way! I'm not going there!" I actually don't blame you. I acknowledge that, particularly if you have gotten very good at suppressing your feelings, this may be painful in the beginning. But think about all the things we do that are uncomfortable.
Many people would rather sleep in the morning rather than getting up and going to work, but they do it anyway. Even though it is not comfortable, they are able to make themselves do it because it is what they have to do to make it in the world. It is uncomfortable in the short term but rewarding in the long term. Feeling your feelings is similar in that the benefit of doing it outweighs the difficulty many experience in the beginning.
How to start
Starting is simple, really. It starts with the willingness to start experiencing emotions to the fullest. Then just pay attention to how an emotion is manifesting in your body. Feelings are like waves. They start by building, eventually peak, and then reduce until they go away. Noticing how an emotion feels and imagining where it would be in the wave is a great way to start to experience feelings fully.
The thing is, when we feel an emotion all the way, it has no reason to stick around. Many people are hesitant to do this because they are afraid they won't be able to handle what comes up or that it will get too intense. It is my experience, however, that emotions are much more manageable when we just face them.
Usually, when we are willing to pay attention fully to an emotion, the intensity goes down because the emotion is not fighting to be seen. With practice, feelings become less scary and much easier to feel and manage. Remember, your emotions are hard-wired in your brain and your body knows what to do with them.
I can report what I notice happening firsthand when people start to face feelings instead of pushing them away: They feel better. Their relationships have fewer problems because irritability and communication problems are greatly reduced. They are less stressed and able to focus. Performance improves. Their bodies feel better. They can breathe easier. Blood pressure and other health issues improve. The list of benefits goes on and on.
Yes, feelings can be uncomfortable, unpleasant, and downright painful. But as the great Robert Frost once said "The best way out is always through."
Anastasia Pollock, MA, LCMHC, is clinical director at Life Stone Counseling Centers. She specializes in treating complex trauma with EMDR. Learn more about her by visiting lifestonecenter.com or email email@example.com.