You can’t let go of something you don’t own.
This (^^) is quickly becoming my new mantra in regards to dealing with difficult emotions. So many times, our instinct is to turn away from difficult or painful feelings. We deny them or mask over them because we don’t know what to do with them, or we’re afraid that if we turn towards them and engage them, we might get stuck in them. In my personal and professional life, I’ve found that the best approach to dealing with difficult emotions is actually fairly logical.
Image: The Gottman Institute
What I love most about this little four-frame comic is how it visually represents what a nebulous, emotional process would look like in a physical sense if emotions were concrete, physical objects. Metaphors and imagery like this can be incredibly powerful in helping us grasp our internal world and emotions.
So, let’s think about dealing with difficult emotions from a physical perspective first: in order to let go of an object, I have to physically be holding it first. I can’t let go of nothing, and I can’t let go of something just by looking at it or thinking about it (unless this is Star Wars, in which case, #usetheforce). Lastly, once I am holding the object, no one else can let go of it for me. It’s physically impossible (again, unless this is Star Wars). Guess what? This isn’t Star Wars, and I think the same is true for feelings:
You can’t let go of feelings you don’t own
How can you, as the comic puts it, walk away from sadness if you don’t first engage with your sadness? How can you move on from anger if you don’t interact with it? Yes, it is possible to pack those emotions away and refuse to acknowledge them (often called “stuffing”), but this is not the same as moving on from them.
No one else can let go of your feelings for you
This is especially true of wounded feelings caused by others. No one else can take away your hurt feelings – even the person who caused them. Unfortunately, once you’ve been hurt, those hurt feelings are yours, and you have to own them in order to let go of them. Which means that you don’t actually need the other person to acknowledge, own up to or apologize for whatever they did. It’s nice, and it can help in the acknowledging process, sure. But no amount of apologizing from another person can actually perform the act of letting go of hurt feelings for us – that’s all on us. Is it fair? No. But it’s true and it’s logical.
Now, obviously our feelings are not blankets – or any other kind of physical object. So how do we look at them, say “I see you”, spend some time with them and then say “goodbye”? Here are my suggestions:
Step 1: Acknowledge your feelings
This is the “I see you” part. Name the feeling(s). Say them out loud. Write them down. Draw a picture or sing or write a song about them. Talk to a trusted friend or mentor about them. Whatever. Just do something that gets it out there and out of your head. And don’t edit yourself or hold back – acknowledge your feelings in their entirety. If you’re having trouble identifying the feeling, try using a feelings wheel.
Step 2: Own your feelings
This is the “spending some time with it” part. Do more of step one – and make sure that you’re using the word “I” a lot. This part is supposed to be about you and how you feel – not about the other person or the situation or the circumstances or the events – just you, and your feelings without a lot of explanations or defenses. The goal is to eventually arrive at a place where you accept yourself and validate your own feelings for whatever they may be.
Step 3: When it’s time, say goodbye to the feeling
You’re not getting rid of it or pushing it away, you’re just leaving the feeling where it resides – in the past, and not presently sitting with it anymore. You can go back and visit again if you need to. I think the most important part of this step is to not rush yourself. Everyone’s pace for processing through feelings is different (even when two people are going through the same situation). Honor yourself by honoring your pace – you’ll know when you’re ready to say goodbye to a feeling.
Step 4: If you’re stuck – ask for help
For some, dealing with difficult emotions is a new undertaking – and people can get stuck at any point in the process whether they are new to engaging with their feelings or not. Personally, I think this is one of the greatest services counseling can offer because it allows you to learn this process in a safe and judgment-free environment with someone who is comfortable dealing with difficult emotions herself. If you happen to live in Missouri and need help learning to deal with difficult emotions – reach out here so we can connect and see if we might be able to work together. If you’re not in Missouri – you can search for qualified professionals to help through a google search, or through Psychology Today. And if you find counseling services to be cost-prohibitive – head on over to Open Path where you can get connected to a therapist in your area for $30-60/session.