What to do When You Have Feelings About Your Feelings

I’m gonna let you in on a secret – I repeat myself in therapy. A lot.

I have four or five or twenty-seven of the same things I find myself saying to clients (and friends and hell, even to myself). Because I work with women who have similar struggles, over time I have developed these little phrases, nuggets, affirmations, challenges, and alternative perspectives that represent some of the core areas where I see my clients get stuck. 

Today’s edition is just four little ANNOYING words: both can be true.

This is a little nugget I offer to clients when they are torn between their feelings and their feelings about their feelings. (Humans are unique in that way.) Anyways, when we dig into it, most clients describe experiencing a tug of war going on inside of them. Usually, when I first drop the “both can be true” line in response, there’s a general “well, yeah, I know…but…”. And it’s the “…but…” part that really underscores the heart of the problem here – which is that we believe feelings are binary and mutually exclusive from each other.

Let’s break this belief down piece by piece.

First – feelings are binary.

I could name a thousand feelings and instinctually, you’re probably able to say whether you think it’s “good” or bad”. Let’s take some basic ones:

Joy? Good.

Jealously? Bad.

Humility? Good.

Anger? Bad.

Patience? Good.

Loneliness? Bad.

In this binary value assigning system, sometimes we mean “good” and “bad” as moral statements – it is good or virtuous to be patient, it is bad or shameful to feel angry etc. Sometimes, by “good” and “bad”, we’re describing whether or not we enjoy or like a certain emotional experience: I like feeling joyful vs it makes me feel bad to feel lonely. Whatever we mean by “good” or “bad” – we all have instinctual values we assign to emotional experiences.

Second – these binary feelings are mutually exclusive from each other.

I hate when people do the whole “the dictionary definition of <word> is…” thing – but hang with me, I think it’s actually helpful here. A quick google search tells me the Merriam Webster definition of mutually exclusive is:

“…being related such that each excludes or precludes the other; also: incompatible.”

My clients often come to realize that somewhere inside them is this unconscious belief that their binary feelings are incompatible with each other – it’s got a whole Harry-Potter-Lord-Voldemort vibe: neither can live while the other survives.

I’ve spent a lot of time talking about this with clients, friends, and even in my own work in therapy trying to figure out why so many of us believe this. The conclusion I’ve arrived at (at this point in my life) is that this is hard for most people because emotions are complex and complexity takes time and energy – something we tend to all feel a little short on. It would be so much easier if I just had one, singular feeling (or several that were all complimentary to each other) about any one given situation in my life  – because otherwise, I wind up in that tug-of-war I talked about earlier where all my different feels are competing to be The One That Wins. The One That is Real. The One That’s True.

Navigating emotional experiences we aren’t thrilled to have like jealousy or resentment or disappointment doesn’t feel good to start with – and when we also experience “happier” emotions like happiness, joy, excitement, and pride at the same time, it can feel confusing. It can cause us to feel guilty or frustrated by our “bad” feels and then we wind up having “bad” feelings about our “bad” feelings. UGH! Such a vicious cycle.

But – imagine with me for a second what it would be like if both could be true. If both “good” and “bad” feelings were equally valid and allowed time, energy, attention, and expression. What if being happy for your friend who just got a promotion honored her and being jealous of her and resentful towards your own boss by whom you feel ignored actually honored yourself and your hopes, dreams, ambitions, and feelings?

Wouldn’t that actually be easier? Wouldn’t you actually spend less time and energy and effort denying, stuffing, controlling, and suppressing the “bad” emotional experiences if you just let them out alongside the “good” ones?

Here’s the truth – it IS easier, but I also won’t lie to you…it’s more work in the beginning. Getting to the place where you can hold equal space for multiple, contradictory emotions takes time and energy and effort. But, you can do it. You can learn how. And as you do, you’ll notice a slow but steady easing of the pull you once felt to declare one the “ultimate winner” and cast the rest aside through denial, suppression, or shaming yourself.

If I could wave a magic wand and bestow on you one immediate therapy victory, it would be this – to let yourself be the complex-feeling human that you are, rather than trying to masquerade as a one-track-feeling robot, pre-loaded with all the “right” feelings and responses to everything in order to be “nice”, in order to feel at peace, in order to be okay.

You are not a robot.

Your feelings are complex.

And both can be true:

happy and sad

grateful and ambitious

appreciative and disappointed

excited and anxious

hopeful and skeptical

trusting and scared

tired and motivated

disgusted and understanding

I see you. I see ALL your feelings, and your feelings about your feelings. And both can be true.