What to do when uncomfortable emotions get in the way.
What do you think is the most frequent complaint when people seek therapy? In my experience, it is a variant of “I feel bad, and I want to feel better.”
The specific emotions that need to change vary from person to person. Sometimes it’s about getting rid of anxiety or sadness. Other times, it’s about changing shame, anger, or numbness. Whatever the emotion, it needs to go.
But feelings are meant to be felt. In fact, we often pay good money to feel our emotions. We watch sad movies and go on rides that produce high levels of fear. We read novels about shame and betrayal, and we sing songs of jealousy or loss.
The problem is not with our emotions. Instead, the problem is with our minds. The mind can decide that some emotions are “bad” or “too much.” Suddenly, we don’t just feel sad—we feel too sad. We don’t just feel anxious—we feel too anxious.
We get stuck with thoughts like, “Only losers feel this sad,” and “If I’m anxious, I won’t be able to function.” And voíla, our emotions have become the enemy. Now we feel sad about being sad. Now we feel anxious about being anxious.
Every time we try to get away from emotion, we demonize it, thereby amplifying its strength and power over us. Now that the emotion has become stronger, we want to escape it even more. It’s a self-reinforcing loop, pulling us deeper and deeper into our mental struggle. Welcome to the trap!
The Science of Getting Unstuck
If you want to get unstuck and thrive despite “bad” feelings, you need to flip the struggle and look at the underlying yearning.
In my new book, A Liberated Mind: How to Pivot Toward What Matters, I show you how to apply the science of psychological flexibility to get unstuck and live in line with your goals and values. The book took me 11 years to write, but it took an entire research and practice community nearly 40 years to produce the content inside.
Psychological flexibility is a set of six psychological processes that explain how we can deal effectively with our emotions and live a rich and meaningful life. Each of the six positive flexibility processes is paired with a negative inflexibility process, and what connects them is their underlying motivation.
The motivation underneath wanting to avoid “bad” emotions is a yearning to feel. The mind says that the only safe way to feel is by only feeling “good” emotions.
However, regardless of which emotion you try to shut off—anxiety, depression, shame, resentment, panic, rage, self-loathing, emptiness, numbness, loneliness, fear, loss, jealousy, or pretty much anything else—the emotion will inevitably come back. Instead, it’s much better to open up to our emotions.
Learning to Feel Better
Look at your own life, and see what you have been avoiding. Maybe you have been postponing a difficult conversation with a loved one because it would make you feel uncomfortable. Or maybe you have been avoiding a task at work because it makes you feel stupid and incompetent.
Whatever you have been avoiding, let’s create a context where you get in contact with the dreaded feeling. This means actively seeking a situation where the feeling naturally shows up. But instead of trying to change the emotion, we want to look at it with an attitude of dispassionate curiosity:
Where exactly in your body do you feel this feeling? If it had a voice, what would it say? And when is this feeling especially useful?
You might notice your mind rebelling as you come closer to the feeling. This is OK. Continue moving forward in small steps. You can set a time limit for how long you’re willing to allow yourself to feel the uncomfortable feeling. You might start with 10 seconds, then move to 30 seconds, then to two minutes, and grow further from there.
You can also challenge yourself on a daily basis and experiment with your willingness to experience uncomfortable feelings—each time trying to outdo yourself. As you practice your willingness to open up to uncomfortable emotions, you might notice that a) the power of the uncomfortable feeling grows weaker, while b) your willingness to experience difficult feelings grows stronger. This is great!
But be warned: Don’t use this method of accepting emotions as a new way to avoid feeling uncomfortable, or you will fall back into the mental trap. The solution is not in changing feelings but in opening up to them. The more we open up to our feelings, the more we can do what matters most to us, and the more we can enjoy the full richness that life has to offer, together with “bad” and “good” emotions—come as they may.