Sitting with your feelings (no matter how uncomfortable!)

There are many in society who believe that experiencing negative emotions such as fear, anger, sadness, jealousy, etc. is wrong.  They believe that those feelings are unhelpful and should be conquered through the use of positive thoughts, cognitive thinking and behavioural changes.  In fact, a lot of the concepts around Cognitive Behavioural Therapy are just that - using behavioural techniques to change how we think and therefor how we feel.   

However I've always been a great believer in sitting with your feelings and allowing yourself time to understand them and acknowledge them, rather than trying to chase them away and bury them.  Now I'm not saying to dwell on feelings or become immersed in them, but at the same time, not to block them out either.  I like to think of it as watching a lightening storm out of your bedroom window.  You are safe enough inside your house that you are not going to get hurt by the lightening, but at the same time, you are allowing yourself to see it and experience it (rather than shutting the curtains and hiding under your bed covers!)

The benefits of sitting with your feelings really hit home during a recent client session.  The client began by talking about their work, how they had lost their motivation and had become disillusioned with it.  They explained how they dreaded going to work and were desperately looking for some alternative.  A few days before the session, the client had spoken to their mother about their feelings.  The mother was very solution focussed, coming up with idea after idea after idea about the possible solutions, e.g. more training courses, ideas for new jobs, careers advisors, etc.  As my client sat and listened to her mother, she became more and more upset and more and more despondent.  She didn't want solutions, she just wanted to be heard and acknowledged.  She wanted her mother to be empathic and understand her feelings.  My client wanted to know that she was still acceptable and still lovable even if she was feeling this way, however her mothers problem solving response made her feel that she was unacceptable and wrong in some way, as if she was failing.  This made her feel much worse. 

Later in the same session with my client, I began to question whether she was using psychotherapy theories and cognitive reasoning as a way of avoiding or burying certain internal feelings.  She admitted that there were times when she was doing that, however believed that it was the right thing to do.  She believed that she could control her unwanted feelings through CBT techniques and other practical methods then it would make her feel better in herself.  I referred her back to earlier in the session when she had spoken about the discussion between herself and her mother and explained how I was hearing that exact same conversation going on within her.

One part of her, which we may call the Parent (in reference to Transactional Analyses terminology), was wanting to problem solve, using practical techniques to overcome her feelings.  However another part, which we may call the Child (also TA terminology), was yearning to be heard for what it was feeling, wanting those unpleasant feelings to be acknowledged, recognised and accepted. 

My client was quite taken aback by this realisation.  She had understood what it felt like to have her need to be heard and acknowledged ignored by the practical approach of her mother and here she was, doing exactly the same thing to herself. 

This understanding has since helped my client to sit with her unpleasant feelings for longer.  Most of the time, she finds they now disappear much sooner and stay away much longer.  I like to think of it as a small child trying to get it's mother's attention.  The more the child is ignored, the more it will interrupt and the louder and more demanding it will get.  However once that child has been heard and acknowledged, it is more likely to feel satisfied and not pester it's mother for attention for a while.

I am a firm believer in feeling your feelings, sitting with them and then choosing a course of action rather than just reacting which often reinforces negative beliefs and emotions.  I have found on countless occasions how accepting all feelings as being fundamentally "okay" and listening to them has provided great therapeutic insights and relief for clients.  So next time you experience fear, anger, sadness, despair, loneliness or any other negative feeling, why not give it a go yourself?  Rather than covering up and burying these emotions, try sitting with them for a while, tolerating the discomfort, learning from those feelings and really understanding that part of yourself.