Dealing with Difficult Feelings
Sometimes, my job as a therapist is to share a hard truth with clients. Today, I’ll cut right to it: dealing with difficult feelings starts by learning that your feelings are real – and – they may not be reflective of reality.
This particular “hard truth” is one I find myself sharing a lot with not just with clients, but with friends, family, and hell – even myself. What I find interesting is that usually, only one half of the statement is the “hard truth” part for people. Either accepting that their feelings are real is hard – or – accepting that how they feel might not be reflective of objective reality is hard. But – like I wrote about here – both can be true 🙂
Your Feelings Are Real
Let’s talk about your difficult feelings – you know, the uncomfortable ones. The ones that don’t feel warm-and-fuzzy like sadness, anger, jealousy, loneliness, embarrassment, and grief. Or how about rejection, shame, confusion, stress, helplessness, anxiousness, powerlessness, abandonment, and humiliation.
Those difficult feelings – they’re real. Meaning, they’re not made up. They’re not illogical. There is a reason you feel:
There. Is. A. Reason. And that reason matters – it really does. Feelings and emotions are like little memory keepers – they’re created the first time we have an experience that causes a feeling, and then they go throughout life, looking for other experiences that bring on that same feeling. So when you feel rejected, it’s because something about whatever triggered that feeling is reminiscent of another time you felt rejected – even if you weren’t rejected. That doesn’t mean it’s in your head – your experience of your feeling is real and it exists for a reason.
For the clients that struggle with this half of the equation – accepting that the feeling is real is so so difficult because they really resonate with the second half of the equation- they already know that their feeling isn’t exactly aligning with reality for one reason or another. 9 times out of 10, this sounds like my clients saying “I feel [blank] but it’s like, logically I know that’s not true”. The work for those clients is in learning that their feelings are actually incredibly logical (I wrote more about that here). In fact, when you can sit with a feeling and really explore it with an open mind, you’ll basically always find that “a” plus “b”, does in fact, equal “c”. Said another way, if you sit with a feeling and explore it with an open mind, you’ll basically always find that there is a perfectly logical and totally valid way for the feeling you’re having – even if it’s not reflective of objective reality.
The “and” is important. Notice I didn’t say “but”. “But” implies a contradiction. An opposing thought. It un-validates the first sentence. The fact that difficult feelings might not reflect reality does not detract from the realness and validity of those feelings – and vice versa.
…they may not be reflective of reality.
Feelings and emotions are entirely subjective and based on perspective. Tangible example: any given day in mid-spring or mid-fall when the weather is changed, my house can feel like a freaking sauna when the heat is set to 72 degrees or like Antarctica when the air is set to 72 degrees.
Technically and objectively speaking, the air is 72 degrees either way – but the way an air-conditioned 72 degrees feels is totally different from the way a heated 72 degrees feels – and anyone who has ever lived with anyone else know, whether or not you’re happy with how it feels is also totally relative to personal experience and preference. It might feel like Antarctica to me when the air-conditioning is set to 72, but the reality is, it’s a legitimate 72 degrees, not 37 like I might be inclined to argue.
It’s not hard for us to understand how this happens. My felt experience of the temperature of my house is based on a million variables – do I like it to be on the cooler or warmer side typically? Did I just come from outside where it is cooler or warmer than it is inside? Did I just work out? Am I wearing a lot of layers or lounging in shorts and a tank top? Am I drinking a warm beverage or something over ice?
The same goes for emotions and feelings.
Sometimes the way we feel isn’t totally based in the present moment.
Sometimes, the way we feel is actually based on something that came before the present moment.
If it’s an air-conditioned 72 degrees in my house but I’m swearing up and down that “it’s a million degrees in here” and I just did a workout, took a hot shower and then drank a cup of freshly brewed coffee – well, my feeling of being too hot is totally real…and probably not totally reflective of the reality that is, in fact, only 72 degrees in my house.
To be perfectly honest, sorting through what is based in the present and what might be leftover from earlier on in life is hard to do by yourself – it can feel like a tangled messy ball of yarn where you know everything is connected but you can’t quite seem to find the starting point to begin un-sorting all of it. There’s a lot of this kind of work you can do on your own – especially if you have a few relatively healthy and self-aware people in your life (be they family, friends, coworkers, etc) and self-help books, etc can be hugely helpful. But – sometimes it’s really helpful to have someone totally objective and trained to sit alongside you with that ball of yarn. Aka – therapy can be really helpful in this way. But even if you’re not ready to dive into that yet, that’s ok. Maybe just stick this phrase in your pocket and take it out from time to time, try it on, see what’s helpful or challenging about it – “My feelings are real…and they might not be reflective of reality”.