What to do with those terrible, horrible, no good, very bad feelings

Most of us didn’t grow up learning how to take care of difficult feelings and it’s rare that adults are able to model this well. So many of us arrive into adulthood with more emotional reactivity and more emotional avoidance habits than we need. Small things set us off and we can get to feeling like we’re ping-ponging from one emotional trigger to another.

It’s a lifelong process learning how to take care of ourselves that way, but there are a handful of simple things we can learn to do right now. Here they are:

  1. Identify what isn’t working. Here are a few ways we block the healthy acknowledgment of our feelings:

    Minimizing: “it’s not that bad” or “it’s no big deal”
    Self-criticizing: “what’s the matter with me that I feel this way?” or “this shouldn’t make me feel this way”
    Blaming: “they made me feel this way; it’s their fault” — read this on blaming
    Numbing out: engaging in addictive behaviors, staring into space for hours, getting paralyzed
    Ruminating: stewing on the details of what happened, story-telling, legalistic arguing in your head
  1. Name the difficult feeling and increase your non-judgmental awareness of it.
    People who are better at naming their feelings experience less anxiety, depression, and OCD.

    Look at this list if you have trouble naming the feeling. You don’t have to get it just right though and feelings change moment to moment. The key is just to practice naming them. The core ones are: mad, sad, glad, afraid, disgusted. The longer list is mostly variations on those primary colors.

    Acknowledge that you’ve having a difficult feeling and turn toward it with curiosity. You’re making a conscious choice here to not do what you habitually do to block a feeling. Say, “oh, I’m feeling angry right now” and “I’m going to see if I can take a minute with this feeling.”

    Notice the thoughts associated with this feeling. Look at the options above for how we normally deflect feelings — are you minimizing, self-criticizing, blaming, or making long legalistic arguments? Are you ruminating over the details of what happened? Once you’ve noticed where your thoughts go, stop feeding them for a minute. Instead…

    Notice the sensations in your body. Does your chest feel tight? Is your jaw clenched? Does it feel heavy behind your eyes? Is your face hot? Are your hands cold? Is your heart pounding? Just notice and name anything you feel in your body — you don’t need to fix anything right now, you’re just paying attention. You’ll get better at this over time, so don’t be hard on yourself if you don’t notice much at first. You’re learning how your specific body responds to what feelings.
  2. Validate the feeling.
    This one is hard for most of us, so be willing to be a beginner with this.

    The idea is that — contrary to what we may have been told growing up — we cannot control the feelings we have and all our feelings are an understandable response to something. Understandable means, “I get how that’s a response we human’s have to this kind of situation” — it doesn’t mean “that feeling is totally rational.”

    We commit to validating our feelings because they are part of being human and validating them will enable them to move through us in a more healthy way than if we do the usual things we do with them (minimize, criticize, ruminate, etc).

    To validate a feeling say something like, “I get why that made me mad,” or “it’s totally understandable you’d feel disappointed about that,” or “that was a tough situation for me, it makes sense I felt overwhelmed” or “wow, that really got under my skin, I’m not sure why, but I’m going to trust that my response come from somewhere understandable. Maybe when I feel calmer I’ll have some perspective on that.” Try using “I’ and “you” sentences and see which one you like better.
  3. Do something to calm your mind and body if you feel like it.
    Often, if we do those first three things above, the feeling will just diminish in intensity over time all on its own. We humans are built to have feelings and our nervous systems will return to baseline if we don’t get in the way.

    If we feel quite distressed though and want to have something to do while we’re waiting to recover, here are some “distress tolerance” tools — it’s good for all of us to have a toolbox like this at hand when we need it.

    Very simple things to do include getting up and going for a short walk, running cold water over your hands, taking ten deep breaths, or doing a short intense round of exercises (pushups, jumping jacks, etc). If you want to try what they do in British crime procedurals, you make a cup of tea with sugar in it.

    Go into child’s pose and send yourself a kind wish like this: “may I let this moment roll through me” or “may I allow calm to return” or “may I accept this moment, hard as it is.”

    Different things work for different people, so try some stuff and listen to what works for you.