From the time that we are children, many of us are told things such as, “don’t cry,” or “there’s nothing to be sad about.” As a culture we are often taught that we should try to avoid unpleasant emotions at all costs. Thus, for many the primary impulse when they are experiencing unpleasant emotions is to try to escape from their feelings, whether it is through alcohol, drugs, restricting food, binging, workaholism, busyness, compulsive sex, or a variety of other self-harming behaviors.
However, I believe that it is far healthier to “lean into” your experiences of pain, rather than trying to numb your emotions. The following are three reasons that it is important to allow yourself to process and experience your feelings.
1. When you numb sadness, you also numb happiness and joy.
The reality is that you cannot selectively numb emotions. Using negative behaviors to avoid your feelings may help you to experience less sadness and anger-however it will also stop you from feeling happiness and joy. Part of the amazing thing about being a human being is that we are able to have a wide range of emotions. Experiencing sadness and hurt is part of what makes it so incredible to feel joy and happiness.
Think of your feelings as waves in the ocean. They will come and go, rise and fall. No feeling lasts forever, and anger and sadness are necessary, helpful parts of the human experience. Additionally, all of our emotions contain gifts and help us to truly grow as people.
2. Struggling with your emotions often leads to more suffering.
When we try to fight against our feelings, this often leads to more suffering. I describe using negative behaviors to try to numb our feelings, as being akin to putting a Band-Aid on a gaping wound. They might make you feel temporarily better, however these behaviors do not “fix” the underlying problem. Further, often using negative coping strategies for numbing emotions causes people to feel even worse in the long-term.
Rather than trying to suppress your feelings, work to be a mindful observer of them. Notice the emotions that you are experiencing and where you feel them in your body. Then, try to cultivate a curious and nonjudgmental stance. Often our emotions are messengers, which signal something important that we need to pay attention to.
For instance, let’s say that you see a friend who is pursuing their life-long dream of writing a book and you are filled with jealously. Taking a moment to get curious about what this emotion could be telling you, may uncover that you too are passionate about the pursuit of writing. Or perhaps you are filled with anger and resentment towards a partner. Often feelings of resentment could be a result of someone not respecting your boundaries, or might be an indication that you are not effectively communicating your needs.
3. Processing and experiencing your feelings is part of having a full life.
Anyone in the throes of an eating disorder, addiction, workaholism, or sex addiction, can tell you that constantly trying to run from your emotions is exhausting. When you are focused on numbing your feelings, rather than processing them and using healthy coping strategies-this holds you back from living a full and meaningful life.
Hurt, frustration, pain, sadness, and anger, are all natural and healthy parts of the human experience. When we try to suppress these emotions, often we are unable to truly thrive as people. Part of having a full life is feeling all of your emotions-both pleasant and unpleasant. It is beaming with joy, and feeling like your heart is so full of gratitude during some moments. It is also experiencing heartbreak and disappointment and truly letting yourself sit with these feelings.
I think that an integral component of being able to cope with emotions is the practice of self-compassion. Self-compassion is simply treating and responding to yourself the way you would a loved one who was sad or struggling. You deserve to extend to yourself the same kindness that you would to others that you love.
“Beating yourself up” for feeling sad, anxious, or scared, often only serves to make you feel even worse. Instead, work to say kind and gentle things to yourself and to engage in compassionate acts of self-care. For some great self-compassion exercises, check out Kristin Neff’s website.
Feel It to Heal It
Experiencing your emotions and being vulnerable with the people that you trust, is a sign of true strength-not weakness. Ultimately, the way to truly heal and move through painful experiences is to let yourself feel. Whether it is by writing in a journal, through artwork, talking to a friend, or seeking help from a therapist, there are so many healthy ways to process your emotions.
Of course there are times (i.e. if you are at work or school) when it is not always feasible to process your feelings in the moment, which is when I would recommend using some healthy distraction/coping strategies. Then, it is important to process your feelings when you are in a better place to do so.
Ultimately, you deserve to let yourself experience all of your emotions, and to treat yourself with kindness and care.
Jennifer Rollin, MSW, LCSW-C: is an eating disorder therapist in Rockville, Maryland. Jennifer has a private practice specializing in working with adolescents and adults struggling with eating disorders (including binge eating disorder, anorexia, bulimia, orthorexia, and OSFED), body image issues, anxiety, and depression. Jennifer provides eating disorder therapy in Rockville, MD. Jennifer offers eating disorder recovery coaching via phone/Skype. Connect with Jennifer through her website at www.jenniferrollin.com