For many of us, we are fugitives from our feelings.
Psychologists suggest that we are driven by two connected motivations: to feel pleasure and avoid pain. Most of us devote more energy to the latter than the former.
Often, we take a reactive, rather than proactive approach to our daily lives, responding to a need to mitigate pain rather than create opportunities that open happiness. Instead of leaving a miserable job to find one we love, we may stay and complain about it all the time, attempting each day to minimize the pain of the reality, withstanding it until something finally shifts.
From a very young age, children can feel overwhelmed by pain. As children move into their teens, denying their feelings becomes second nature. Moving into adulthood and many of these self-defeating behaviours become self-medicating behaviours – drinking alcohol, taking drugs and so on.
I’m not painting a pretty picture here, but this is the picture that walks through my door into counselling sessions. What comes next? We unpack the uncomfortable feelings. We start to release the plastic plug on that inflatable beach ball that they’ve been trying to hold under water for so many years. The exhaustion is palpable. A lifetime of compounded emotions.
This is what inevitably happens when you never deal with uncomfortable and difficult feelings, they eventually deal with you. The double down-side to this is when you block out the difficult and uncomfortable emotions, you block out the good stuff too.
It comes down to three steps:
- Developing emotional intelligence.
- Learning to sit with negative feelings.
- Creating situations for positive feelings.
EMOTIONAL INTELLIGENCE (EQ)
EQ is defined as the ability to: Recognize, understand and manage our own emotions and recognize, understand and influence the emotions of others.
In practical terms, this means being aware that emotions can drive our behaviour and impact people (positively and negatively), and learning how to manage those emotions – both our own and others – especially when we are under pressure.
Some Steps to Improve Your Emotional Intelligence:
- Understand what emotional intelligence looks lik
Psychologist Daniel Goleman identified five elements to EI: self-regulation, self-awareness, motivation, empathy, and social skills. This means you understand what’s going on in your head and heart; you don’t make hasty decisions on impulse; you can motivate yourself to delay gratification; you listen to, understand, and relate to other people well; and you’re able to focus on other people. You can read more about these ideas in Goleman’s book Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More than IQ.
- Use meditation to regulate emotions.
It’s infinitely easier to deal with emotions as they arise if you’ve already done a little work to create a calm inner space. If you’re new to meditation, you may want to try one of these simple ways to make meditation easy and fun.
- Take an honest look at your reactions.
Do you frequently jump to conclusions without knowing all the facts? Do you need other people’s approval to feel comfortable in your own skin? Do you assume you know what other people feel and take responsibility for that? Do you freak out over stressful situations, blaming other people, getting hard on yourself, and panicking over possible consequences?
- Practice observing your feelings and taking responsibility for them.
It’s not always easy to understand a feeling when it happens, especially if you think you shouldn’t feel it; but forget about should. Instead, try to pinpoint exactly what you feel—scared, frustrated, worried, ashamed, agitated, angry—and then pinpoint what might be the cause. Reserve all judgement.
Simply find the cause and effect, i.e.: your employer seemed unhappy with your work, so now you feel stressed, or your significant other expressed dissatisfaction, so now you feel scared. Anytime you feel something uncomfortable that you’d rather avoid, put a magnifying glass on it.
Once you know what you feel, you can now challenge both the cause and the effect.
You can ask yourself whether you’re overreacting to the event or worrying to find a sense of control. And then you can accept that there is an alternative—you can choose to interpret the situation a different way, soothe yourself, and then feel something different. No one else causes our feelings. Only we can choose and change them.
LEARN TO SIT WITH NEGATIVE FEELINGS
Even if you reframe a situation to see things differently, there will be times when you still feel something that seems negative. While not every situation requires panic, sometimes our feelings are appropriate for the events going on in our lives.
We can feel whatever we need to feel. If we lose someone, we’re allowed to hurt. If we hurt someone, we’re allowed to feel guilty. If we make a mistake, we’re allowed to feel regretful. Positive thinking can be a powerful tool for happiness, but it’s more detrimental than helpful if we use it to avoid dealing with life. Pain is part of life, and we can’t avoid it by resisting it. We can only minimize it
by accepting it and dealing with it well. That means feeling the pain and knowing it will pass. No feeling lasts forever. It means sitting in the discomfort and waiting before acting. There will come a time when you feel healed and empowered.
Our power comes from realizing we don’t need to act on pain; and if we need to diffuse it, we can channel it into something healthy and productive, like writing, painting, or doing something physical.
Pain is sometimes an indication we need to set boundaries, learn to no more often, or take better care of ourselves; but sometimes it just means that it’s human to hurt, and we need to let ourselves go through it.
CREATE SITUATIONS FOR POSITIVE FEELINGS
This is the last part of the puzzle. As I mentioned before, we tend to be more reactive than active, but that’s a decision to let the outside world dictate how we feel.
We don’t need to sit around waiting for other people to evoke our feelings. Instead, we can take responsibility to create our own inner world.
We can identify what we want to say yes to in life and choose that before struggling with whether to say not to someone else. If you love dancing, take a class. If your greatest passion is writing, start a blog. If you daydream about being a musician, start recording.
Don’t worry about where it’s leading. Do it just because you love it. There will always be reason not to do something, but it’s rarely a good excuse.
We all need more of doing the things we love. Don’t wait to FIND meaning in life, CREATE it.
You are not your thoughts and your feelings are not facts. Negative feelings are only negative if they’re excessive and enduring. We won’t hurt ourselves into eternal misery if we let ourselves feel what we need to.
Still, we don’t have to feel bad nearly as often as we think.
If we choose to foster a sense of inner peace, challenge our perceptions and interpretations when our emotions could use some schooling, and learn to take responsibility for our joy, we can not only minimize pain—we can choose to be a source of pleasure, for ourselves and the people around us