When it comes to difficult emotions, the only way out is through.
I reject the idea that there are “bad” feelings. When people describe “positive” and “negative” emotional experiences, they are usually speaking about a different continuum: comfort. There are some mental states that are incredibly hard to tolerate. This is particularly true when we haven’t developed the requisite skills to understand, manage, and express what is happening in our heart during difficult moments.
Referring to emotions as “bad” or “negative” assigns a value to internal experience. It creates an inherent message that certain emotions should be avoided. Yet, many of the problems people face are not caused by these feelings but are, instead, a result of their inability to work through these more challenging emotional states. Instead of tuning into what is happening internally when they feel uncomfortable emotions, many people turn away from their internal reality as quickly as they can. They develop patterned responses and rely on escapist strategies that cause more heartache in the long run. Avoidance only makes problems worse because people fail to develop the competence and confidence to deal with hard things. Instead of building emotional agility, they reel, explode, or run.
“There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”
When people come to therapy, they often express a desire that they want to “feel better.” As the process unfolds, clients discover that their wellbeing improves as they get better at feeling. All of the things. A marker of emotional health is having the capacity to experience and express a wide range of emotions fully.
Each of our emotions is a source of information. While we shouldn’t treat our feelings as instructions, they can provide useful data we shouldn’t be quick to write off. Many feelings are instinctual—they’re trying to protect us. Sadness. Anger. Regret. Anxiety. Envy. Loneliness. These are not signs that something is wrong —they’re evidence that we’re alive. These emotions are an inevitable part of the human experience and serve important purposes. They can clarify, energize, and inspire change.
Sadness is a natural reaction to the loss of something important. We often experience sadness in the wake of disappointment. When this feeling surfaces, let yourself grieve. Stifiling sorrow prolongs pain. Consider the messages you’ve internalized about sadness. Do you let yourself cry? Is it “okay” for others see you? There’s nothing weak about sadness. It’s a signal you need comfort—let yourself seek, receive, and absorb it.
People do some bad things when they are angry, but that doesn’t mean that being angry is a bad thing. Anger can be a signal that something is wrong and action is needed. Allow anger to mobilize you toward correction, intervention, and improvement. It’s a powerful impetus for change. Without anger, we would be apathetic to injustice and walk away when someone was hurt. We usually experience anger in concert with other feelings. In this mad symphony, anger is secondary emotion that often sits atop more vulnerable emotional states like sadness or fear.
As we move through the world, we are always acting with incomplete, imperfect information. We understand life in reverse but must live it forward. Use hindsight as a teacher, not a critic. When you look back at something you could have done better, have self-compassion. Use regret to motivate you to do things differently from this moment forward.
Guilt is a signal that harm has occurred and repair is needed. Living in a world where aggressors experienced no remorse would be scary and dangerous. Guilt goes off the rails when the feeling doesn’t fit the situation. If you’re feeling guilty, do a quick gut check: Did I hurt someone or break something? If yes, take corrective action swiftly. If not, let the guilt go. You don’t deserve punishment for crimes you didn’t commit.
Anxiety is adaptive. This feeling keeps us alive. We rely on our fight-flight-freeze response to protect us when we face a threat. Anxiety can become a liability when the mind misperceives threat. Sometimes our body fires as though something that may or may not happen in the future is attacking us right now. When our brain can’t register safety or trust security, we are constantly on edge. It’s exhausting. If you’re feeling anxious, do a reality check. Anxiety grounded in evidence and intuition can help steer you out of harm’s way. On the other hand, chronic anxiety and constant fear will shrink your life and hold you back.
We experience envy when we want what someone else has. Envy can devolve into a mental spiral of wishing ill on others “If I can’t have ____, I don’t want anyone else to have it either.” It sends us into a zero-sum headspace instead treating success with an abundance mindset. Underneath the surface of envy, we’re often sad or dissatisfied. Instead of becoming fixated on what others have, refract your envy and look inside. If you want to know exactly what you want in life, look at the people you’re envious of. After using a picture of someone else to gain clarity about your aspirations, reinvest your energy on converting your desire to reality. Don’t stew, wallow in self-pity, or hope others’ successes are spoiled. Focus on what you can control—yourself.
Humans are hard-wired for connection. Myriad things can disrupt our relationships or sense of belonging, including circumstances, environment, or underdeveloped interpersonal skills. If you’re lonely, use your agency to meet your unfulfilled need. Reach out. Bids of connection are acts of vulnerability, but sometimes we have to be the ones to go first. Loneliness isn’t just about physical proximity. It has to do with internal experience, too. We isolate ourselves with the story, “I’m the only one who ____.” If you dare to show up with courageous authenticity, odds are that you will find someone who will say, “Me too.” At the end of the day, humans are more alike than not.
Rethink your relationship with feelings. The following questions can help you develop deeper self-awareness about your emotional life.
What emotions are most uncomfortable for you to tolerate in yourself? Others? Why?
What do you do to avoid uncomfortable emotional states?
How confident do you feel in your ability to express ______ (insert emotion)?
What would help you feel more confident in your ability to express (insert emotion) skillfully?
How was (insert emotion) expressed in your home while you were growing up?
How did caregivers respond to you when you tried to express (insert emotion) while you were growing up?
What are socially acceptable/unacceptable ways for a (your gender) to express (emotion)?
Who is a positive role model you can look to for expressing and managing (insert emotion) in a healthy manner?
How and where do you experience (insert emotion) in your body?
What do you believe is true about (insert emotion)? How does this belief impact you?
You’re never not feeling, so it’s a worthwhile investment to get serious about raising your EQ.
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If you’re interested in more strategies for managing stress, raising your EQ, and strengthening self-awareness, don’t miss Finding Joy: