It’s all too easy to discard our feelings: “I’m overreacting”, “I’m too busy to be upset about that”, “I shouldn’t be mad at him; it’s my problem.” To name just a few.
But we ignore our feelings at our own peril.
Often, people come to believe that their feelings exist to be managed. Therapists can be equally guilty of sending that message. We offer “tools” and “strategies” and “resources” of how to deal with those pesky emotions.
I’ve written treatment plans myself that use the phrase “learn to cope with feelings”, as if they’re merely something to be borne. Ride out the feeling, and get back to a productive life.
But if we treat strong emotions as what gets in the way of life, instead of a valuable part of life itself, we could be destined to repeat the same mistakes. We could miss an opportunity to improve ourselves, or even just to know ourselves better.
For example–Let’s say you are having a strong, maybe even an overwhelming, fear. It seems irrational. Too strong, really, given what triggered it.
One way to respond is to use tools to manage the feeling. It can be contained with reassuring self-talk, or breathing exercises.
But maybe it was actually trying to tell us something important about who we are and what we value. We reacted strongly to something that might on the surface seem relatively minor, because it connected to some deeply held belief, or a threatened loss, or a memory.
It could connect to all sorts of things, and if we simply cope rather than unpack the potential meanings, we miss out on information about ourselves. We lose the chance to learn and grow.
(A caveat: If you are routinely experiencing overwhelming emotions that interfere with your ability to function, that might be a sign you need further help. Dialectical behavior therapy is a great treatment, and PsychCentral has a great blog about it.)
Otherwise, it could be useful to think of strong emotion as an arrow pointing to what’s most vital for you. You can choose to follow and see where it leads.
Fearful man photo available from Shutterstock