You start feeling a bit uncomfortable or stressed out. Maybe you’re downright overwhelmed. So you reach for a glass of wine—or shot of whiskey. You reach for a bag of chips or cookies. You go online shopping. You start going out more and more. You sit in front of the TV for hours. You scroll Facebook for the same amount of time.
You find yourself doing this regularly. In fact, you’ve been doing it for years.
Naturally, we don’t want to feel uncomfortable—because it’s, well, uncomfortable. So we push down the discomfort as soon as it surfaces. We dismiss it. We deny it. We try to numb it. We try to numb ourselves. Because beneath that discomfort lies fear: the fear of failure, rejection, criticism, imperfection. The fear that our feelings are too big. The fear that we can’t handle them. And that’s simply too painful to feel.
According to coach and author Andrea Owen in her excellent book How to Stop Feeling Like Sh*t: 14 Habits That Are Holding You Back from Happiness, “When we numb, we walk away from ourselves. The bottom line is that we’re walking away from our humanity. From the expectations we can’t live up to, to the stories we make up about how we life should be. From the speed at which we think we should be able to ‘deal with this sh*t’ to the approval that, deep down, we seek from everyone. Because to sit in all of that—to sit with our flawed humanity—is uncomfortable and uncertain and scary. But that’s all we have, and that’s our solution.”
Maybe you know this. Maybe you know all of it, and you’d like to stop numbing. But it’s hard. And that’s OK. Because with practice, you can start feeling the fear and anger and sadness and whatever else arises. Owen shares this super helpful eight-step process in her book.
- Name the feeling. Often you don’t know where to start. You’ve become so disconnected from your body and yourself that you don’t know what you’re feeling. Start by pausing, getting quiet, and tuning in. Pick just one word to describe what you’re feeling, such as sadness or resentment or anxiety. (Doing a body scan can help you identify your physical sensations. Go from head to toe, checking in with what’s happening in each body part, such as: tightness in the chest; tension in your shoulders; throbbing in your head.)
- Carve out time to feel. Owen calls this “controlled emoting.” It’s when you set time aside to reconnect to your emotions. For instance, go to a place you feel safe, put on music that helps you release your emotions, look at old letters or photos that help you explore your memories. Then let yourself feel whatever arises. Sob if you need to. Yell if you need to.
- Accept that the experience may be confusing. You might start feeling different feelings at once. One feeling might shift to another. In other words, this isn’t a linear process, and it might feel very confusing to you. As Owen writes, try to be OK “with the feelings not making much sense.”
- Acknowledge that your feelings are worthy. We often dismiss our own pain because we think it’s not as painful as someone else’s, which means we don’t deserve to feel it. Well it’s not as bad as so and so. So and so has really been through a lot. My stuff is silly or small in comparison. However, as Owen writes, “What I do know for sure is that stuffing down those feelings because you think they aren’t worthy of being felt is choking you. Keeping you small. Folding you into a box. And that serves NO ONE, especially not you. Do you think you’re easing other people’s suffering by ignoring your own? You’re not. It serves no purpose. What you are accomplishing is diminishing your soul, holding yourself back from love, expansion, growth and happiness….”
- Notice if you’re taking on other people’s feelings. Don’t let other people’s ideas of how you should be feeling become how you’re feeling. In other words, accept your own feelings, even if they’re contrary to what others say. For instance, when Owen found out that her first husband was cheating on her, she felt incredibly humiliated. Some well-meaning people told her that she shouldn’t feel humiliated because her husband was the one who messed up. But this was Owen’s experience, and it was important for her to process that.
- Get curious about your feelings. Don’t judge yourself for having a certain feeling. Instead ask yourself: Why? Where is this feeling coming from? What does it mean?
- Talk about your feelings. Talk to someone you trust about your pain, someone who can empathize and listen fully. This might be your spouse or your therapist.
- Learn to trust your feelings and yourself. At first you might be flooded with feelings, because you’ve finally opened the gates. You’re finally inviting in your feelings. Again, trust that your feelings are valid, and take small steps. For instance, as Owen writes, instead of saying, “I’m fine; it totally doesn’t matter” and sprinting to the mall, you describe your feeling. “Little by little, bit by bit, you can slowly begin to trust yourself and your heart that you will, in fact, be okay.”
You may be utterly terrified of your feelings. This is totally understandable, and it’s 100% OK. Start slow. Start with one word. Start with 5, 10, 15 minutes of feeling an emotion. Give yourself the permission and space to honor the feelings swirling inside.
You are a complex, exquisitely intricate human being, and your feelings may be complicated, too. Honor that.
At the end of each chapter, Owen includes powerful questions for self-reflection. I’ll leave you with these questions, too, because they’re vital to explore: How do you numb yourself? Why do you do this? What if our feelings were just perfect for us? What if none of our feelings were good or bad? What if feeling our feelings was just part of being human?