What do you do when you’re sad?
Here are some likely possibilities: You text a friend about what’s troubling you, you buy some takeout from your favorite Chinese place, you anxiously ruminate about what you are going to do about the bad thing, you decide to watch some Netflix, you decide to go grab a drink with a friend, you catastrophize about how what’s wrong now will never be right again.
Here’s what you probably don’t do: Sit back, take a deep breath, and feel in your chest how sad the sadness is.
When we feel an uncomfortable emotion, our first instinct is to run away from that emotion. We buy ourselves food we like, turn on our favorite TV shows and video games, and try to “put it out of our mind.” Or we “vent” to our friends, mistakenly believing that if we purge, if we “get it out of our system,” our negative feelings will be gone before we even have a chance to feel the pain.
Like taking painkillers, these measures are great ways to manage the initial injury — but like taking painkillers, they can never solve the problem.
For many emotional injuries, this is fine. When you get a papercut, you don’t need to get antibiotics and IV fluids from the hospital; it will heal on its own. Similarly, minor emotional injuries often resolve themselves without remark.
Major emotional injuries are another story. If you break a bone, you need to get the broken bone set, soon, or your broken bone will:
- Heal in a deformed way, leaving you crippled forever
- Begin to rot, die, and take you down with it
You’ll also need painkillers indefinitely because a broken bone that doesn’t get set is a bone that hurts forever.
There are a lot of people wandering around right now with psychologically broken bones that were never set. They numb the pain with sex, drugs, and entertainment, as their hearts slowly bleed around wounds they cannot heal.
The good news is, you don’t necessarily need a licensed medical professional to set a psychological wound (although having a therapist around never hurts). Sometimes, all you need is to feel it.
Why It’s Important To Feel Negative Emotions
All emotions indicate something. Sometimes, they are an indicator of something we already know, like the grief we feel when a loved one passes away. Sometimes, though, emotions are an indicator of something we need to investigate. For instance, if your emotional response to your spouse coming home is anxiety, that indicates there’s a growing emotional problem between you and your spouse, one you need to take care of as soon as possible.
This is often where people start to go wrong. Instead of asking themselves why they’re feeling what they’re feeling, and confronting the problem, they shy away.
This causes a dangerous cycle to take root. When people learn to take painkillers to ease their emotional pain, they do that instead of treating emotional problems at their source. When the painful emotions return — which they will, because they are not being treated — they turn to painkillers again. Then their pain gets worse, then they need more painkillers to manage it, and the cycle continues.
When we don’t feel our feelings, they can spiral wildly out of control. They become conditions like alcoholism, drug addiction, Major Depressive Disorder, or Panic Disorder. While genetic factors do play a part in causing conditions like these, there are many people with the genetic risk factors who go their whole lives without developing these conditions. What tips the scales over into illness is how we handle our emotions.
I know this is true because it happened to me.
Sophomore year of college, I was a functional student at my local university. I ran a successful startup consulting practice (read: people hired me for $18 an hour to run small, underfunded projects) and was successfully moving through a Management Information Sciences degree program.
By junior year, my life had fallen apart. For seemingly no reason, Panic Disorder had taken hold of me. Over the course of three months, I went from never having had a panic attack in my life to having major panic attacks five times a week. I was given a prescription for a medication similar to Xanax, had to get medical permission from the university to skip class because I was too afraid to leave the house, and had to have my father come by once or twice a week to make sure I was eating. It was humiliating.
Why did I develop a major psychiatric condition virtually overnight? Because the only way I knew how to handle fear was to run from it.
The trigger for my panic attacks was eating. Thanks to IBS, eating can sometimes be very painful for me. Before Ohio passed medical marijuana legislation, every meal I ate brought with it a chance of pain. When I got out on my own, I wanted to do what other people my age were doing. I wanted to go out to eat with friends, try new foods, and live life. But because of my pain, trying new foods caused me anxiety.
No one ever taught me how to deal with anxiety, so I did what any self-respecting American did: I buried it. If I ignore it, I thought, surely it will go away. When it didn’t, I took up watching Supernatural reruns for hours upon hours at a time.
When that didn’t help, I started restricting what foods I ate. But it was too late. By that point, the monster was out of control. I was now afraid of eating anything, even foods I knew were safe, because the neural pathways responsible for my fear took on a life of their own. My doctor diagnosed me with Panic Disorder.
Thankfully, I managed to cure myself of it. While that process was extraordinarily challenging and one of my proudest achievements to date, the cure was essentially the same: I had to learn how to sit with the fear instead of run from it.
I was reading an article by clinical psychologist Nick Wignall that reminded me of this experience:
“As a psychologist and therapist, the number one thing I see making people unhappy is that they have an unhealthy relationship with difficult emotion. In particular, they look at feelings like sadness or anxiety or anger as if they were viruses to be eradicated or at least avoided.
But here’s the problem: If every time a painful emotion pops up you either try to get rid of it or distract yourself from it, you’re training your brain to be afraid of that emotion. Which means your brain’s going to be even more on the lookout for painful emotions in the future. And when they do appear, you’re going to respond with an even stronger fear response and impulse to avoid it.
When we fight or run away from our emotions we train our brains to be afraid of them.”
— Nick Wignall, clinical psychologist, “Happy Habits: 5 Uncommon Routines for Happier Days & Years.”
How To Sit With Your Feelings, Not Run From Them
If you’re like most people, you’re better at running from your feelings than you are at sitting with them. You probably haven’t taken much time in your life to learn how to sit with your feelings and just feel them.
The first thing you need to know about learning how to feel your feelings is that it doesn’t happen all at once. You can’t go straight from repressing your feelings to fully feeling all of them all the time. Your feelings will reveal themselves to you, little by little, with each day that you practice.
There are a lot of advanced techniques for sitting with your feelings, such as doing one-hour meditation sits or fancy yoga regimens — but if you’re reading this article, you’re probably not ready for such a thing. I certainly wasn’t. In lieu of meditation, yoga, and fancy emotional retreats, your first explorations into your feelings should be small and approachable. For instance, the next time you notice you are not feeling happy, ask yourself, “What am I feeling?”
If no immediate answer leaps to mind — as it probably won’t — you can ask yourself these guiding questions:
- What physical sensations are you experiencing with this emotion? Are you feeling a tightness in the chest? Heaviness on your shoulders?
- What adjectives leap to mind to describe what you’re feeling
- If your mood was a piece of music, what would it sound like?
- What weather pattern does your current mood most closely resemble?
Sometimes you won’t be able to find any answers, even after asking these questions. That’s all right too. Part of learning how to be with your feelings involves creating mental space in which your feelings can exist in the first place. Rainer Maria Rilke said it best:
“I beg you, to have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Don’t search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.”
— Rainer Maria Rilke
So next time you’re experiencing a feeling you don’t understand, say to yourself “It’s okay that I don’t understand this.” If a friend says something that frustrates you but you’re not sure why you’re frustrated, give yourself permission to feel frustrated anyway. Don’t feel the need to “solve” the frustration, and don’t leap to conclusions about why it’s there. (In fact, don’t even assume it’s about your friend in the first place).
Learning how to handle emotions gracefully is not like learning techniques for handling your email. You can’t read one internet article and expect to have all the answers, or even any of the answers.
So, if you’re interested in reading more about the art of accepting your emotions for what they are, here are the books that made the biggest difference for me: