A 63-year-old client in therapy tells me: “There are days when I am consumed with sadness. Last week, when I began to feel sad, I tried to distract myself, watch something on TV, eat something after a while, but by the time I was ready to sleep, the sadness returned. What does one do with these negative feelings?”
Like the client mentioned, it’s normal for each one of us to experience feelings that are overwhelming or intense. If these feelings are associated with discomfort, pain, or a certain dissonance, very often we end up labelling them as negative. Not only that, we also end up shaming ourselves for even experiencing them.
My understanding as a therapist is that there are no negative or positive feelings. As one of my mindfulness teachers once explained to me, our feelings are just pleasant or unpleasant in the way we experience them. For example, when people experience emotions of grief, sadness, disgust or even rage, they find it hard to even acknowledge to themselves or others that they are experiencing these.
The reality is that we are not taught what to do when we experience feelings that are felt in the body and mind as intense or discomforting. As a result, we spend large parts of our life avoiding or suppressing them. Often, our acts of binge-watching, constant scrolling, binge-eating, or even constantly working and keeping ourselves busy, are a way to avoid addressing our feelings. Sometimes, we believe that if we don’t pay attention to a feeling that is perceived as difficult, it will disappear.
Unacknowledged feelings, however, find an outlet, either in the form of an outburst, lower threshold levels of patience, frustration or tolerance, disturbed sleep, or even as a psychosomatic illness. The great news, though, is that each one of us can make room for feelings that seem difficult and learn how to process them.
This process begins by making peace with the fact that at some point, each one of us experiences feelings that are intense and emotions that evoke pain. Once we begin to accept this, we can give ourselves permission to feel. My experience is that this permission to embrace one’s own emotion can be liberating, because it allows us to get in touch with what’s happening within. This, followed by the step of paying attention to the feelings emerging in us and giving them a name, is the second step.
For me, naming a feeling brings about a certain familiarity and makes it a little more tangible—and, hence, easier to process. This should be followed by the process of paying attention to sensations in the body and mindfully noticing where the feelings are felt in the body. This process of pausing, observing one’s feelings and sensations, needs to be complemented by a certain warmth and compassion towards one’s own self. Curiosity and a non-judgemental attitude towards one’s self are two other factors that allow us to witness and hold space for our feelings.
In addition, I often use meditation, or pay attention to my breath, to anchor myself and keep bringing myself back to the present. The concern with strong feelings is that they can make us anxious, restless, so there is a danger of impulsivity, avoidance, or an urge to get done with the emotion or situation so that one doesn’t need to address the feeling. As the late Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh said: “Feelings come and go like clouds in a windy sky. Conscious Breathing is my anchor.” Once we begin to accept this and find our own anchors—which could be writing, mindful walking, the ability to stay still and let the feeling pass, or even social soothing in the form of talking to a loved one who offers a calm presence and compassion—we increase our capacity to hold all kinds of emotions.
No matter how old you are, it’s always a good time to start practising this.
Sonali Gupta is a Mumbai-based clinical psychologist. She is the author of the book Anxiety: Overcome It And Live Without Fear and has a YouTube channel, Mental Health with Sonali.