Working with Emotional Discomfort

emotional discomfort
Emotions come in waves. Accept them and let them wash through you.

“Emotional discomfort, when accepted, rises, crests and falls in a series of waves. Each wave washes a part of us away and deposits treasures we never imagined. Out goes naiveté, in comes wisdom; out goes anger, in comes discernment; out goes despair, in comes kindness. No one would call it easy, but the rhythm of emotional pain that we learn to tolerate is natural, constructive and expansive… The pain leaves you healthier than it found you.”  — Martha N. Beck

In a previous post on crying, I discussed the emotional benefits of the physical act of weeping. Whether it is tears of sadness, anger, despair or joy, having a cry can have its benefits.

At other times, you may want to cry but cannot, even though you may be overcome with emotion. Of course, there are other ways of working with our difficult emotions, such as talking, writing, music, making art, and physical movement. I have a client who uses running as a way of processing her feelings. A dear friend paints, sculpts and crafts.

However, whether we want to cry, talk or paint, we must first do something that might seem to go against our fight-flight instincts; namely, accept our feelings. Accepting our feelings can be hard because the emotions themselves can feel like a threat. As such, we tend to automatically do one of two things: Attempt to control our feelings or let them control us.

  1. When we attempt to control our feelings, we repress, deny, distract ourselves from, or displace our true feelings.  Psychologists call these defence mechanisms. By definition, defence mechanisms do not work long-term. We use defence mechanisms, usually unconsciously, because we fear we may suffer anxiety or other overwhelming emotions. However, a person who is scared to have difficult feelings (i.e. to suffer) is already suffering from what he fears.
  2. When we allow our feelings to control us, we give in to them. Cognitive therapists talk about emotional reasoning. For example, we feel scared and so are convinced that “this IS scary”, or we reason “I feel bad, therefore I must be bad”. We use our feelings as a basis for understanding the world and ourselves, and in doing so, we are misled. Then we may act out our feelings unwittingly; hurting others or running away.

However, there is a THIRD way to work with emotion. We accept our feelings just as they are, make space for them inside us, breathe, and remember that emotional states come and go like the weather. We don’t block them, deny them, or buy into them. We allow them and we FEEL them.  We are then better able to talk about them, as I described in an earlier post on communication.

As the above quote from Martha N. Beck describes beautifully, when we accept our uncomfortable and painful feelings just as they are, they can flow through us and eventually out of us, making room for something else to appear.

The “something else” is the insight you acquire through experiencing the legitimate suffering of being human. No one escapes suffering. Carl Jung said that our neuroses and addictions are substitutes for legitimate suffering. The rewards of working through our legitimate suffering include wisdom, learning, meaning, and personal growth.

So stay curious about what is going on inside you, notice how your body is feeling, keep breathing, extend some comfort and acceptance to your own emotions, and ride the wave. It is taking you somewhere.

“Character cannot be developed in ease and quiet. Only through the experience of trial and suffering can the soul be strengthened, ambition inspired, and success achieved”. – Helen Keller


Do you need help dealing with emotional discomfort? North Brisbane Psychologists is here to help. Book an appointment today.