Every human has feelings. As I often tell my clients, feelings aren’t right, wrong, good or bad. Feelings exist like they air, they have a purpose. We need air to breathe, to survive, to live. Feelings help us navigate our environment, help us choose behaviors and interact in our relationships. All feelings are necessary and healthy.
Most people have that mindset that we must avoid uncomfortable feelings, such as sadness, rejection, disappointment, grief, etc. We often try to avoid these feelings because we think if we’re happy all of the time that life will be great! Realistically, that’s not true. That’s actually called suppression when we avoid feeling uncomfortable feelings.
We live in a culture that encourages suppression and dysfunction. From religious perspectives of having a weak or broken spirit, messages in media and music, “Don’t worry be happy,” we are encouraged to believe that any feeling other than happiness, joy, excitement, or elation are bad. The truth is, if we don’t allow ourselves to become comfortable with processing and appropriately expressing uncomfortable emotions, we become a person who has poor emotional regulation. When we have poor emotional regulation, we will often be reactive to our strong emotions and lash out at others. Some people may even refer to it as having “anger issues.”
The truth is, we have feelings we have not allowed ourselves to feel and process yet. We have feelings that we have not set free yet. When we feel an intense feeling, we need to acknowledge it. We need to observe it, as it it were sitting beside us. We need to be introspective to explore why we had such an intensity when that feeling surfaced. We need to consider where we feel the feeling inside of our body. We need to sift through the possibilities that it could be a trigger from a painful experience in the past. We need to identify what is the painful experience and allow the feeling to exist.
Working Through Difficult and Uncomfortable Emotions
Negative or dark emotions are probably the most difficult to think about, let alone accept. Our culture has conditioned us to believe that we should deny or repress our negative emotions. The contrary is true though. It is absolutely imperative that we not only acknowledge our uncomfortable and difficult emotions, but that we also accept them. This is one of the most important aspects of coping.
The desire to avoid what’s uncomfortable and seek what feels good is part of human nature. The downside to avoiding uncomfortable emotions—rather than accepting them—only increases our psychological distress, inflexibility, anxiety, and depression, diminishing our well-being.
Suppressing our difficult and uncomfortable emotions often leads to using very unhealthy ways to cope with our distress, such as food, sex, drugs alcohol, or other unhealthy coping mechanimism. The use of these unhealthy coping mechanisms then leads to suppressing that we are using these destructive things to cope with our distress, which in turn causes more distress.
Research suggests that when we turn toward our feelings, we are less likely to engage in unhealthy behaviors. When we turn toward our physical pain, we are less likely to be trapped in cycles of chronic pain. When we turn toward our sadness, we are less likely to be stuck in depression. When we turn toward our anxiety, we are less likely to be paralyzed by it and can find it easier to bear.
Learning to embrace uncomfortable emotions brings a significant reduction in our anxiety, it also lends us the ability to experience the joys of life more fully with a growing trust in our abilities to cope with life’s challenges. A very positive outcome from dealing with difficult emotions is that we can heal.
If we want to live more fully and be our most authentic selves, we need to turn towards our pain by not pushing it down or pushing it away. We often wonder, what will help us get there? The tools of mindfulness, acceptance, nonjudgement, self-comfort and self-soothing are paramount to coping and healing.
In starting to develop this practice, try to start with emotions that are not too intense. We might want to first learn this skill with our therapist, especially for more intense emotions. Here’s what this involves.
Developing a willingness to recognize and acknowledge our difficult emotions
Imagine looking around and we see someone we know. We wave and observe them. We invite the person to sit with us, but we don’t hold their hand, or put our arm around them. We also don’t judge them. We observe. We make small talk with them. When they’re ready to leave, they depart us. We wave goodbye. That’s how we must learn to treat our difficult and uncomfortable emotions.
It may even be helpful to picture our emotions as having a color, shape, or form. We may even envision our emotions as cartoon characters or an emoji, allowing our inner child to observe the emotion, too. Part of the practice is simply to acknowledge and accept the feelings that manifest, just as they are.
This is a new experience for most people. Who wants to feel our uncomfortable and difficult feelings? Who wants to feel sad or angry? When we let our feelings arrive, and observe them from a bit of a distance, we can take a curious look and explore what is there.
Be curious about our feelings
Mindfully observing what we are feeling may help us cope with feelings that exist. It may be useful to name our feelings (Oh, that’s hurt; that’s jealousy; that’s anger) because, as simple as this sounds, we often don’t pay attention to the nuances of what we are feeling; consequently, important information gets lost along the way. Labeling our distressing emotions gives us a way of validating our inner experience, but it has the added benefit of dialing down their intensity.
It may also be beneficial to see our emotional “visitors” as temporary guests. Adding the phrase “in this moment” to a statement like “I am feeling stress, anger, or hurt” will help us observe what is present without feeling overwhelmed.
Other things we might say to ourselves may include:
- Where do I feel the feeling in my body?
- If this feeling could talk, what would it say?
- What does this feeling need?
Being curious about our feelings rather than fearful or rejecting them provides a better lens for understanding our feelings.
- Feel a feeling
- Identify what is the feeling
- Acknowledge the feeling
- Observe the feeling
- Observe the feeling, do not attach to the feeling, don’t pull it close, don’t push it away
- Allow it to exist in it’s own space
- Do not judge ourselves for feeling the feeling
- Sit with it until it dissipates
- Let it go
Give yourself the gift of empathy
Besides pushing away uncomfortable feelings, many of us have been conditioned to judge our emotions in negative ways. We’ve learned that if we show sadness, it’s a sign of weakness. We may have been convinced that we are a bad person if we feel anger or jealousy. We’ve been told that we should “move on” when we experience loss. When we come face to face with difficult emotions, we often tell ourselves that there’s something wrong with us.
When we practice mindfulness in combination with self-compassion, we recognize that we are all human. We will learn to ponder the fact that we all suffer as human beings. Cultivating self-compassion is linked to psychological well-being.
To practice self-compassion, imagine sitting with a good friend who is suffering and think about how we might extend a gesture of compassion. What would our body language be like? How might we listen? What sensations would we feel in our hearts?
Now picture that person extending compassion towards us. What might that person say to us or do? What words would we find comforting or soothing?
Chances are, another person would not be telling us to “get over it”, or that “we shouldn’t feel this way”. They might say, “that sounds really difficult. I’m here for you” or perhaps they might simply give us a hug, or pat us.
When we learn to sit mindfully with our own emotions, and bring compassion to whatever we are experiencing, it’s as if we have become that caring friend, sitting with ourselves. Learning to be there for ourselves, through the positive moments as well as the painful ones, can be tremendously healing.
While embracing our dark emotions takes courage and practice, using this practice allows us to open a gift on the other side. Each time we practice being with our difficult emotions, we grow better coping skills. We learn to trust in our capacity to handle our experiences, develop resilience for moving through life’s challenges, and find ways to pursue what truly matters. Each of us has the power to face the difficult and uncomfortable.
Goals of difficult and uncomfortable emotions:
- Acknowledging and identifying my feelings
- Observe and accept the reality of my feelings and thoughts.
- Allow my feelings to exist and not puush my them away or down
- I will not pull my feeling toward me by trying to control them
- I am accepting these feelings exist because of a trigger I felt
- I will allow my feeling to exist until they dissipate
- I am replacing the pain with healing
- I will comfort and soothe myself
Radical acceptance is the ability to completely accept our feelings and thoughts about something uncomfortable and difficult. Below are steps that go more in depth to what radical acceptance means.
- What is radical acceptance?
- Radical means all the way, complete and total.
- It is accepting what is in your mind, heart, and body.
- It is when you stop fighting reality, stop feeling angry, bitter, resentful, or victimized because the reality is not the way you want it.
- What has to be accepted?
- Reality is as it is, meaning the facts are the facts whether we like them or not.
- We cannot control reality, we cannot control facts, so we have to accept that they are what they are.
- Everything has a cause, even things that are difficult and uncomfortable.
- Life is worth living even if it’s not always pleasant or fun.
- Accept reality
- Repressing or trying to control reality doesn’t change it.
- We cannot change or control reality, so we have to accept it as it is.
- Pain cannot be avoided.
- Rejecting reality turns pain into suffering.
- Refusing to accept reality keeps us stuck in unhappiness, bitterness, anger, sadness, shame, resentment, and victimization.
- Acceptance may lead to emotional discomfort and difficulty, but it is followed by a deep calm and peace.
- The path out of difficult feelings is being uncomfortable.
- By refusing to be uncomfortable, we suppress the difficult emotions that lead to our misery.
What Radical Acceptance is NOT!
● It is not trying to seek approval
● It is not seeking compassion
● It is not seeking love
● It is not remaining passive
● It is not remaining the same, being stuck
● It is not repression or denial
Factors that may interfere with acceptance:
- We don’t want to feel the difficult feelings or be uncomfortable, but we need to accept.
- We believe that if we accept our difficult feelings that we’re approving of the trigger, that nothing will change, but the truth is that we’re healing, growing, and moving forward.
- Difficult emotions are uncomfortable, such as sadness, anger, range, shame, or guilt.
- Accepting our emotions about the entire situation will help you heal and move forward.
- The weight that is released is incredible when we accept our feelings instead of trying to control or fight them.
How to Practice:
Learning to feel and accept our difficult emotions by being uncomfortable is incredibly releasing.
- What are you really upset over?
- Write down why you believe you are feeling down.
- Comfort and soothe yourself while feeling down.
- What are the thoughts running through your mind?
- Write down your thoughts surrounding the issue.
- You may even talk outloud to yourself about your thoughts in processing them, or journal about them.
- Do not judge yourself for your thoughts.
- What emotion(s) is behind those thoughts?
- Write down what you are trying to identify the emotions that are entangled with the thoughts and the root of feeling down.
- Acknowledge your feeling(s).
- Observe your feelings.
- Allow your feelings to exist in their own space as not good or bad.
- Do not judge yourself for your feelings.
- What are you pushing away and/or trying to control?
- Write down what you think you are pushing away and trying to control.
- Sit with your thoughts as you process your feelings and desire to control or push them away.
- Why do you think you are trying to control or push those thoughts and feelings away?
- Write down why.
- Sit with your ideas of why you think you are trying to control/push away your feelings and thoughts.
- Observe that you are trying to control or suppress your thoughts because you don’t want to be uncomfortable by feeling the difficult feelings.
- Remind yourself that you are choosing to hold on to the feeling by trying to control or suppress your discomfort.
- Remind yourself that by allowing the feeling to come to the surface, it will eventually leave because you’re no longer trying to hold on to or control it.
- Allow yourself to feel the emotion rising to the surface in your body, feel your body getting lighter as the emotion rises, and feel your body release and relieved as the emotion leaves your body.
Accepting things we want to control is a choice. The choice to accept it does not mean that we will instantly feel better or different, but it is a step toward healing.
- I want to observe that I am not accepting by exploring whether I feel anger, bitterness, irritation, or victimizing by thinking, “why me?” “why do things always happen to me?” “this isn’t fair!”
- I will make a commitment to accept reality as it is.
- I am going to continue to practice acceptance until I feel a change within myself toward accepting what makes me uncomfortable.
- I will develop a plan for catching myself in the future when I resist accepting something.
Allowing our bodies to cope with being uncomfortable
Our bodies communicate with our brains? Our body and mind are connected, so our body’s actions send signals to our brains. The following is a productive coping skill to help our bodies cope with uncomfortable feelings.
- Relax your face from the top of your head to your chin and jaw.
- Let go of each facial muscle including your forehead, brows, eyes, cheeks, mouth, and tongue.
- If you have difficulty relaxing these muscles, try tensing them first then relaxing them. A tense smile may tell your brain that you’re hiding feelings and wearing a mask.
- Let both corners of your lips turn slightly upward.
- It’s not necessary for others to see this.
- A half smile is slightly upturned lips with a relaxed face.
- Try to adopt a serene facial expression.
- Remember that your facial expressions communicate to your brain and connect to your body.
- Drop your arms from your shoulders and keep them straight or bent slightly at the elbows.
- With your hands unclenched, turn your hands outward with thumbs out to your sides, palms up, fingers relaxed.
- Place your hands on your lap or thighs.
- With hands unclenched, turn hands outward, palms up and fingers relaxed.
- Arms by your sides, hands unclenched, palms up, fingers relaxed.
Did you know that breathing can change your brain? Counting your breaths taps into the emotional side of the brain.
1. Inhale for a count of four.
2. Hold for a count of four.
3. Exhale for a count of four.
4. Wait for a count of four.
5. Repeat until you feel calm and grounded.
I’ve been feeling down because (Why do you believe you’ve been feeling down?)
I don’t want to accept the reality of (What do you not want to accept?)
I’ve been rejecting the fact that (What facts have you been rejecting?)
Because of this, I will never (What do you fear about this issue?)
This makes me feel (What is the feeling that manifests because of this issues)
I feel (state your identified feeling) and that’s okay.
It’s okay that I am allowing myself to feel (state the identified feeling) and accept that (What is it that you’ve not wanted to accept?)
I feel relieved that I finally allowed myself to accept reality.
I feel relieved that…
I feel relieved that…
I feel accomplished that…
I feel accomplished…
I feel accomplished that…
I feel accomplished that I finally accepted what I was trying to control.
What happens when we repress our negative emotions?
Repressing our emotions is not allowing ourselves to deal with difficult emotions. Repressing our emotions can lead to anxiety, depression, weight loss, weight gain, insomnia, sleeping too much, dysfunctional behaviors, and a plethora of other physical issues.
Hixon, S. (2019) Mental health content.
Kurland, B. (2019). What Happens When You Embrace Dark Emotions.
Linehand, M. (2015). DBT Skills Training Handouts and Worksheets.