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Emotions 101: How To Be Healthy – Counseling
Counseling can help you deal with uncomfortable emotions in a healthy way. Most of us try to avoid uncomfortable emotions. Who likes to feel sad, depressed, lonely, hurt, scared or betrayed? Don’t you try to NOT feel this way? You might have even engaged in unhealthy behaviors to avoid your emotions.
I encountered this common theme in my work as a counselor at drug and alcohol rehab facilities. Substances (or pornography, shopping and anger), for example, helps you numb from emotions you don’t want to feel. Over the years, those who have used again and again were so used to numbing, that this became second nature.
Though it may be unpleasant, I propose that if you want to feel your comfortable emotions in life, you have to get good at feeling the ones that are not so comfortable as well.
It is important to realize that uncomfortable emotions are not bad. We all experience a myriad of emotions; some make us feel better than others. Because of the discomfort that come with some emotions, many try to avoid them all together. Or they take them out on others, or eventually deal with them in unhealthy ways.
The trick to dealing with emotions in a healthy manner is not to get rid of them, but rather to embrace them and then let them go. As I work with couples or individuals in counseling,
I often review three simple steps to dealing with emotions. I will outline them here.
Recognize Your Emotion
The first step is to recognize what you are feeling. If you don’t know what we are feeling, then you cannot do anything with it. It will unknowingly control you.
Problem #1: When I ask clients what they’re feeling they often reply, “I’m angry.” Anger, however, is what I call a false emotion. It only exists as it attaches itself to what we originally felt. For example, if someone were to post something mean about you on social media it might make you feel hurt. What is your natural reaction to something like that? You might want to lash out at that person. This is you embracing anger instead of hurt. In this case, anger covers up hurt and offers the illusion that it is protecting you. It makes you think that it’s keeping you safe from future hurt. However, all it’s doing is causing you to remain hurt.
Solution: Anger is insatiable. It can never be satisfied. Have you ever felt good after embracing your anger? No. You probably feel even more angry. That is why I call anger a false emotion. Let anger be the first sign that you are actually feeling something else. Ask yourself the question, “What am I really feeling?” in order to recognize your true emotions.
Problem #2: Another hurdle to recognizing your emotions is the use of the phrase, “I feel like…”. This phrase sounds as if you are talking about your emotions because it uses the word ‘feel’. However, this phrase talks about your thoughts, not your emotions. For example, after seeing someone’s negativity towards you on social media, you might say, “I feel like you just don’t get me”. Is this a thought or an emotion? It’s a thought. And in these circumstances, talking about your thoughts is a protective measure, not one that will bring solutions and healing.
Solution: If you want to be more vulnerable and share what you feel, drop the ‘like’ and just add an emotion such as ‘hurt, sad, betrayed’. Most people don’t do this because talking about your thoughts protects you from being vulnerable and possibly getting hurt again.
Problem #3: A lack of vocabulary is also a hurdle to recognizing your emotions. When asked how you are feeling, you might respond with any of the following – ok, alright, fine, good or bad. None of these are emotions. If pressed, you might respond with one of the following – happy, sad, hurt. This is a move in the right direction but ultimately incomplete.
Solution: Increase your vocabulary by simply using a chart. This might sound remedial, but it can help you recognize what is really going on. Instead of clumping all of what you are feeling into ‘happy, sad or hurt’, you are more accurately able to identify your emotions. This feels right and helps you with the next step in Emotions 101.
Feel Your Emotion
This is often the hardest step. After you have recognized that you feel hurt, for example, you usually don’t want to embrace that feeling. This goes back to not wanting to feel your uncomfortable feelings. When you allow yourself to feel these emotions, you then have power to do something with them.
Consider the following example: You have a couch in your house that you really detest. This is the ugliest, most uncomfortable piece of furniture ever created. It is so ugly and lumpy that no one wants sit on it. How do you handle it? You can’t magically make it disappear. It won’t go away if you close your eyes and wish it were gone. In order for it to move out of your life, you actually have to pick it up and move it. You have to embrace it.
It seems ironic that in order to move something out of your house that you don’t like, you actually have to get closer to it and touch it. The same goes for our emotions. When we feel emotions (get closer to them, touch them, pick them up) then we have the power to do something with them. We can let them go. They might return later tonight, or tomorrow or next week. If they do, however, we can do the same process of picking it up in order to let it go. You can’t move something you won’t pick up.
Cope With Your Emotion
This is the step most people want to skip straight to. You might recognize your emotion and want to just get rid of it. You want to cope with or let go of your emotions without feeling them. Skipping from step 1 to step 3. But doing this can get you into trouble.
When you try to cope with your emotions without first picking them up, what you are really doing is avoiding them. This is similar to taking a blanket and covering the ugly couch in your house. It isn’t gone just because we put a blanket over it. Rather, it’s still there!
What we choose to avoid with (i.e., social media, pornography, substances, food, work) then becomes our go-to every time we feel uncomfortable, and an addiction is born. Coping with an emotion involves not forcing it to leave and not forcing it to stay. We let it go after it has run its course. Then we can do something that helps us recover—such as reading a book or talking with a friend.
Learning to deal with uncomfortable emotions can feel counterintuitive at times. Your initial response may be to avoid them or push them away. But, as you recognize and feel your emotions you are then in a better place to let them go. The more you do this, you can start to develop habits that will improve your emotional health and relationships. Counseling can be a great tool in this process.