There are certain words we all make sure to never express, especially when we are around other people. We don't want to make them uncomfortable or think less of us. The F word is certainly one of those words we always try to avoid. There is another F word most of us try very hard to avoid...Feelings. Not all feelings of course. We are generally quite fine expressing pleasant feelings, but we are very disturbed when uncomfortable feelings come up. We view them as an uninvited intruder and use all kinds of weapons to make sure they can't harm us. But feelings are actually our best allies, if we only learn to speak their language.
Just like traffic signs help us navigate the roadway safely, emotions help us navigate our inner worlds. Anxiety is there to warn us that there may be danger ahead and we should proceed with caution. Guilt is there to ensure we act in a way that aligns with our morals and values. Frustration or irritability can signal something isn't quite right in our world and we may need an action plan to resolve it. Sadness may manifest the loss of something we cared about and indicate the break in that attachment. Our emotions are there to teach us about our experiences and our needs in each and every moment.
It is important to note that I am not discussing feelings associated with major depression, panic attacks or any other mental disorder. Those are treated differently and may require professional intervention and medication. I am talking about the wide range of common emotions that is a part of every human experience, yet most of us are so terrified of them that we find creative and many times dysfunctional ways to try to avoid feeling them. There is a reason for that.
If you asked a room full of people to raise a hand if they grew up with parents who showed and modeled how to successfully move through their feelings, you might see one hand raised on a really good day. If you are one of those people, consider yourself incredibly lucky and move on to read a different post. Most of us were raised by parents who were taught overtly or subliminally that other people cannot tolerate their emotions and they should snap out of them or hide them. Our parents didn't know better, so they didn't do better with us. It is passed down from generation to generation until someone is brave enough to learn how to live in peace with their feelings and change their family culture around emotions. Is it going to be you?
In my sessions with clients we talk about distress intolerance. I assess their level of distress intolerance through a worksheet I provide them and learn what emotions are especially challenging for them. We work to change their mindset and start developing a more constructive ways to manage their emotions. Accepting and learning to manage emotions doesn't make them suddenly feel good, but it can certainly reduce the duration and severity of the distress. It can also minimize the negative effects they have on your life. You won't need to turn to alcohol to numb your pain, or become a workaholic to distract yourself from feeling, or damage your relationships engaging in destructive coping behaviors. You learn to let go of your need to control your emotions and allow yourself to just be.
The process described above of embracing feelings (and thoughts) rather than fighting them is a core principle in Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT). I use the ACT framework frequently in my work with clients. I love the freedom that the acceptance of emotions brings and the peace in allowing ourselves to just be. ACT teaches you the delicate balance between acceptance of what is and setting an intention to what will be. I will discuss this important second concept at a later time, so stay tuned. For now just know that when you follow these two concepts, acceptance of what is and commitment to what will be, you unlock a major door on your path to happiness.