It’s easy to welcome our emotions when we’re on a high – feeling excited about summer plans, feeling proud of a child’s report card, feeling loved or cared for when we spend quality time with friends and family. But when we go through a challenging experience, a loss, a setback, or a crisis, it is often our instinct to ignore or run from our feelings of pain and discomfort. Recently having been through the loss of a loved one, and talking about difficult experiences and emotions with clients on a daily basis, I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how we get through those hard-to-feel feelings.
Last year I was fortunate to attend a talk by Dr. Rick Hanson, and I have been focusing lately on something he said about “putting out the welcome mat” for our feelings, including the tough ones. It might sound silly- why would we want to welcome pain in our lives? But the fact is, all feelings- the good and the bad- are going to visit us. They will come and they will go. When we forget to welcome the good in, we miss it. And when the bad comes knocking at our door, our resistance only delays their visit.
What does this mean about identity? We must learn to be aware of ourselves as a home for our experiences and emotions, in which certain traits tend to remain the same and build the foundation and structure of who we are, and our feelings are simply houseguests who come and go. For many people I work with who suffer from chronic anxiety, this is an important differentiation: the anxiety is not part of their identity, it is an unwanted visitor that has gotten overly familiar and taken up residency. Negative emotions do not define a person, nor do they need to be permanent. I’ve also seen people who define themselves as “very happy people” and have a hard time figuring out how to process grief and loss. They either deny grief as something that someone “like them” isn’t susceptible to, or on the contrary they might lose their sense of self as they become inhabited by such a foreign feeling. We must remember that our bad feelings, whether part of a longer term illness or a shorter term external event, do not define who we are. Neither do the good feelings in fact. Our feelings are visitors who might come into our homes, change the decor a bit, stick around for a while, but eventually they leave. Take time and reflect on what your home is truly made of.
Why and how to welcome in good feelings: As I said earlier, if we forget to welcome the good in, we miss it. Sometimes we become so entrenched in our routines that we go through our days and repeat our patterns of behavior mindlessly. That doesn’t mean we don’t have good experiences or feel happy; but without mindful awareness of these experiences and feelings, without pausing to notice the comings and goings of our emotions, we might not feel a deeper sense of gratitude, excitement, wonder, or contentment in our lives. In other words, you might still see the roses, but if you don’t stop and smell them then you’ve missed out on a fuller, deeper positive experience. Each day, practice checking in with your good experiences. I ask many of my clients to keep a positives list as a note in their iphones: each day they write down five positive experiences and the feelings that accompanied them. This is a simple and quick way to notice the good things in your day, and by spending a bit of time focusing on them you prolong and deepen the positive experience. Another great practice is a gratitude jar: write down one gratitude per day on a small piece of paper and put it into a jar. With both of these examples, it feels great to see the good experiences build up, and at times when we feel low or empty, it’s nice to go through and look at these. These practices are about noticing the kind passers-by, putting out the welcome mat, and inviting them in to stay for a while. The more you practice doing so, the more often they visit and the longer they stay.
Why and how to welcome bad feelings: Often when we have negative experiences- whether it’s interpersonal conflict, financial hardship, loss, or internal struggles- it is our instinct to resist the negative feelings that come with it. We try to pretend the problem isn’t there, we avoid difficult conversations, we self-medicate. But the fact is, we can’t avoid these experiences, we can only procrastinate on feeling them. Bad things are sometimes going to happen to us, around us, and within us, and that is part of life. What we can control is how we respond and a large part of that lies in how we process negative emotions. When we avoid and resist, the problem remains and sometimes grows (not to mention building up a lot of stress and contributing to health problems). The unwanted visitor at your door is sometimes very intent on getting into the house; you can ignore the knocking and wait for it to gain strength and break in, or you can answer the door. Welcoming in bad feelings doesn’t mean lingering the way we should with the good ones- it simply means acknowledging them. Open the door, look them in the eye, name them. Say hello to your grief. Notice your anger or your pain, write down what it feels like and describe the space that it takes up. Keep a journal and pour some feelings into it, or talk to a close friend or a therapist about the feelings. Once you have done so, since a visit with these feelings can be draining, (this next step is really important) then do something soothing like taking a bath, going for a walk, or watching television. I tell my clients that the best way out of a situation is through it; in this case, the best way to get rid the bad is to let it in, and then let it go. The relief that we feel after welcoming in and then letting go of a negative feeling is far greater than the relief we feel by avoiding it.