In the last few days, several people have shared with me about their intense emotional pain they are experiencing. What I find fascinating is that all of us humans know intellectually that life comes with its fair share, and not so fair share, of unbearable pain. With that being said, all of us try to avoid feeling because it simply hurts too, too much. People have gone to great lengths to avoid feeling. Some people utilize substances to numb their emotions. Some seek adrenaline-behaviors to mask their unwanted feelings. Some train themselves to shut off their emotions completely and learn how to not feel. Despite all efforts great and small to avoid feeling emotions, one thing is certain: emotions don’t go away. So for the above, this leads to more substance use over time, more thrill-seeking over time, and more not feeling over time.
Even though unpleasant emotions are so difficult, they are necessary. Emotions give us lots of information, they warn us, they validate us, they cause is to reflect, they motivate us, and they help us to connect with experiences that are not verbal. Life would be incomplete without a range of emotions. It wouldn’t make sense to not feel sad when a sad thing is happening.
There is a quote out there that says, “Emotions won’t kill you, behaviors will.” I’m not sure who said it or wrote it but there is much truth here. It is what we do with our emotions that gets us into trouble and I would venture to say it’s those efforts to avoid emotions that actually do us harm. Again, the biggest reality here is that emotions are unavoidable no matter how skilled we become in our attempts to avoid them.
So what do I do? I’m in pain, I ache, my heart hurts and it is literally unbearable. I had a client tell me recently that his heart physically hurt after a particular situation occurred in his life. I also went to a training once that taught that people actually grieve and feel on a cellular level. These emotions run deep and we experience them throughout our bodies and brains. So, again, what do I do when I can’t bear it?
The answer: You feel it.
You let yourself feel whatever it is that you are feeling. I had a therapist friend tell me when I was going through a challenging time that the only way to work through pain is to feel pain. We have to allow those emotions to come through and give our bodies and brains a chance to process our emotions about our experiences. Emotions function like waves and when you truly pay attention, even in very challenging circumstances, the level of intensity of an emotion is constantly shifting. It is in those subtle shifts that we begin to find our relief. As we feel and experience our emotions for what they are, we then begin to notice that they change and eventually they let up. If not, the brain almost stores them to be felt later. The best method for coping with intense emotions is to actually feel them and watch the process of processing and shifting emotions.
This isn’t a fun experience, but remember the better you are at experiencing negative emotions, this can also increase your ability to fully experience the good ones too.