Sam Holstein

How to Accept and Honor All Your Feelings, Even the Ones That Hurt

How to Accept and Honor All Your Feelings, Even the Ones That Hurt

For the first 25 years of my life, I did not know how to let myself feel.

I thought I did. When I experienced a feeling, I was more than happy to go along with whatever impulse accompanied the feeling.

So many people go through life in a state of active resistance to their feelings. They force themselves to work when they want a break. People who do this are on a fast track to burning out. We all know this. I thought I was OK because I wasn’t like that.

There’s a key difference between feeling your feelings and what I did, though. I didn’t feel my feelings, I acted on them. Instantly. I just went along with whatever my feelings suggested, irrespective of whether doing so would help me accomplish my larger goals.

Interestingly, acting on my feelings so quickly actually was a way of getting around having to feel my feelings. The moment I felt a hint of a feeling somewhere in my insides for even a second, I did the very first thing that popped into my head to make the painful feeling go away as soon as I possibly could.

There were times this tendency to act benefitted me. I’ve never denied myself a night’s rest in my life and this has been great for my health. I’ve also never tortured myself by staying in a job I hated. But there were far more times it worked against me. I gave up on career goals and shied away from important relationships because the work to change anything was too painful to contemplate.

The true way to accept and honor your feelings is to take the middle path.

The Middle Path is the name Buddhists give to the mindset of balance. To take the middle path is to neither strenuously avoid your conscious experience nor lose yourself in it.

Meditation, so popular as a wellness practice, was originally conceived as a way of practicing the middle path. To meditate is to experience fully the present moment without losing yourself in it.

You don’t need to meditate to take the middle path, though. You can take the middle path with your emotions at every moment.

  1. If you’re studying late at night and feel tired, acknowledge to yourself how tired you feel. Let your body communicate to you how tired it is.
  2. Validate to yourself that you are, in fact, tired as heck. Validate how much it sucks to stay up studying.
  3. Consider your individual situation and goals. At this point, will studying or going to sleep help you more? Don’t worry about what you think you “should do.” Don’t consider which option is initially more painful. Consider which option will bring you closer to your goals.

The beauty is that if you stop and take the middle path, it will be easy for you to make a wise decision about what to do. Foolish decisions — whether to repress or to impulsively act — come from avoiding emotions or losing oneself in them.

I’ve used the simple example of deciding whether to keep studying here, but the feelings that we don’t allow ourselves to feel are usually much bigger than that.

We refuse to let ourselves feel hurt when our partners say something hurtful because we want to keep the peace, or we explode and demand they “fix it.” We refuse to acknowledge the career we’ve been working toward for a decade makes us profoundly unhappy, or we quit careers we’ve only been in a short time because of temporary setbacks.

Even deeper than that, we refuse to let ourselves feel the profound hurt we’ve accumulated over a lifespan. We refuse to acknowledge that we seem to feel empty wherever we go. We ignore the sensation of missing something important about life everyone else seems to understand. Or we lose ourselves in drug addictions and compulsive behavior, simultaneously denying and indulging our pain.

We practice validating our feelings and wisely making small decisions so we’re able to when the big challenges come.

In Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT), this place of wise decision making is, aptly called, Wise MindWise Mind is one of the three states of mind identified in DBT. The other two are Emotion Mind and Reason Mind.

Source: positivepsychology.com

When you are in Emotion Mind, your mindset is overly focused on your feelings. You don’t care about how you do on the test tomorrow, damnit, you want to sleep! Who even cares about this test anyway?

When you are in Reason Mind, your mindset is overly focused on the logical or rational. The more you study, the better you will do on the test, the better your grades, the better your grad school applications, the better the future job, so on and so forth.

In Wise Mind, we can acknowledge the realities of both our emotional circumstances and the logical realities of our situation. We can access the wise, intuitive part of ourselves that always knows what to do.

And how do we access Wise Mind? We access Wise Mind by taking the middle path. Instead of pushing our feelings down to be ignored or acting on them immediately and letting them run us, we mindfully feel without acting for as long as necessary — whether that’s a few moments, hours, days, or weeks.

I’ll admit the language of “the middle path,” Reason MindEmotion Mind, and Wise Mind put me off at first. It’s a funny way of speaking. But if you cut through the funny language, the concept is pretty simple. Instead of acting reactively with either repression or springing into action, we can mindfully experience our feelings without acting and access our own inner wisdom.

The power of doing this has changed my life in the last few weeks.

For years, I’ve had an entrenched problem with cannabis dependency. My medical marijuana prescription is for a legitimate chronic pain condition, but I’d fallen into the habit of using orders of magnitude more cannabis than my pain required. To manage my pain, I only need to use 5mg 1–3x a week, and I was using 10mg 2–5x a day. Yeesh. With great effort, I could sober up for a week or two, but sooner or later, my willpower always broke. Back to square one. Classic addiction.

This new perspective on how to experience my own feelings changed things for me nearly overnight. I’m learning to slow down and attend to my feelings. When I feel bad, I don’t rush to find something that will fix the pain. I just sit with the pain.

My cravings for cannabis are nearly gone. The only times I used cannabis in August have been to legitimately treat chronic pain. And when I had to use it, I didn’t feel relieved, I felt annoyed. Being high blunts my ability to stay with my feelings, which is now much more important to me than the euphoria of being high.

I’ve also been in treatment for a serious psychiatric illness for the last year, and treatment has been going slow. It has been one step forward, two steps back.

Now that I’m staying with my feelings, the internal resistance I felt is melting away. I’m meditating daily, something I used to find excruciating, and I’m eager to read and work on my workbooks, something I haven’t wanted to do since last November. Best of all, this is happening without the aid of Seroquel.

The cost is steep. I’m more upset on a daily basis than I can remember being in a long time. Most days it feels like I’ve been donkey kicked in the chest. I’m not sleeping well at all. Confronting feelings I’ve spent a lifetime running away from is no walk in the park. But there’s no question it’s worth it.

How do you know if you need to learn how to sit with your own feelings? Here are some telling signs.

Perhaps the biggest sign: You’ve always had a tight feeling in your chest. For as long as you can remember, you’ve just felt uncomfortable pressure in the center of your chest. You’ve tried everything to make it go away, from yoga to essential oils to guided visualizations, but it’s always there.

Stop running away from the pressure in your chest. Move toward it. Let yourself feel it. If doing so makes it worse, you’re on the right track.

The pressure in your chest is all the feelings you haven’t let yourself feel. The fantasies of running away and dying are your subconscious’s way of trying to relieve the pain of these un-felt emotions. But the only way to truly relieve the pain is to let yourself feel them, no matter how painful, for as long as your body needs.

If anything in this article called to something inside you, don’t ignore that. The whole problem is that you’re ignoring feelings you shouldn’t. Let yourself dwell on the sensation. What point got your attention? What did it make you feel? What does that feeling feel like inside your body? Follow that.