Melissa Wilson, LMHC
Embrace How You Feel
"Oh no - don't cry!" "Don't let them see you nervous!." "Don't be angry!" At some point in your life, you may have said something of the sort to your children, to a friend, to a relative. We likely mean well - sitting with someone else's strong feelings (without doing or saying anything!) can be hard work - but I've been sitting with a thought lately: when did we start compartmentalizing feelings into two categories: good and bad or positive and negative? Why and when did this happen? Why can't we cry or feel nervous or feel angry?
I wonder if we started saying certain emotions are negative - because, like I said - sitting with someone when they are experiencing strong emotions can be challenging work! Also, it might make us feel sad when we see someone else cry or we may feel nervous when someone becomes angry. However, I wonder if we can begin to see emotions and feelings as just that - emotions and feelings - and stop putting them into categories or labeling them as something positive or negative. How do we do this though?
I don't have all of the answers and this is a lot to unpack in a single blot post, but I know that we can start by simply validating the person's feelings. Try saying: "I see you look sad [angry, frustrated, nervous]." By acknowledging their feelings, they realize it is absolutely okay to feel that way. We are not always happy or excited or joyful or calm all of the time - we are beings who are constantly in a state of change (whether we like it or not!) - and we need to normalize that and acknowledge that it is perfectly acceptable to feel a wide array of emotions throughout a single day.
With children and adolescents (and even some adults!), they also benefit from having a label to identify their feelings. By labeling their feelings, we are also letting them know that they are not their feelings. Avoid phrases like: "I AM sad" or "I AM angry". Rather, try using: "I feel sad" or "I feel angry". We don't need to become our feelings - because we are not our feelings. I talk with my boys quite a bit about how their feelings do not define who they are - my oldest often describes himself as "sensitive" because he really feels his feelings; however, what is wrong with feeling strong emotions and why does he feel the need to defend his feelings by referring to himself as sensitive? He doesn't need to! We try to reframe it for him and ask him what his strong feelings are telling him and to ask himself if he needs something - even if it is just to sit with his frustration or excitement or talk about it with someone.
Lastly, rather than trying to talk your friend (or child or sibling or colleague) out of feeling a certain way, you can ask: "How can I help?" or "What do you need?" The person might simply need you to listen and hold space for them, without trying to fix anything. Sometimes, they may need options to help them manage such strong feelings. When I see my own children getting really excited and wound up, I often say: "I see you jumping around - you seem like you have a lot of energy. What do you think you might need right now?" Usually, they throw on their sneakers and head outside - I am not trying to change how they feel or tell them to stop feeling their energy, but I help them find a tool and an outlet for all of their excitement or energy (and so then I can make dinner without crashing into a jumping child!).
We also need to remember that feelings pass by (generally speaking) - especially when we acknowledge them, when we sit with them, and when we try to figure out what they are telling us. It is hard work - no one said it would be easy to embrace our feelings, but pushing them away may not lead to any growth either - they will simply resurface - sometimes with even more strength and ferocity. How do you handle your feelings or the feelings of others around you? Do you embrace them or do you push them away? I realize this can be a cultural norm - is that the case for you? Are there certain times when you allow yourself to embrace your feelings? Like in the safety of your own home or with certain loved ones? I wonder if you will take some time this week to embrace your feelings and see what they tell you - how did you grow? What did you learn about yourself? Let's do it together - and take some time to embrace our feelings - through this practice you will see growth.