It seems to me from years of experience of being human and from observing the struggles of other humans, that one of the biggest challenges we face is that of managing our emotions. Finding balance in our experience and expression of emotion is an ongoing act, for which we are often ill-equipped by our families of origin, the schools we grow up with and the society we live in.
The people who choose to seek counselling are often faced with the feeling of having a choice of two options. That of holding their emotions in, repressing them, stuffing them down and pretending they are not happening, and that of letting emotions fly, expressing them, unleashing them on another person.
Both of these positions can lead to problems; not expressing feelings can lead to emotions getting stuck in the body, can lead to them ‘leaking’ out in other ways.
Such a denial of feelings can also lead to symptoms of anxiety and depression from being cut off from ourselves.
Yet expressing feelings freely, reacting to whoever provoked such feelings with an outpouring of our woes, can lead to problems in a relationship, with the other feeling blamed and misunderstood. This can lead to feelings being provoked in the other and an endless round of hurt and reaction.
It seems like a difficult choice, to repress or express. Not much of a choice, a rock and a hard place. No wonder we have annexed emotional life from many parts of society, from work, from schools, from all but the closest of friendships. And in doing so we have annexed ourselves from our feelings and learned to distrust emotion. To see feelings as troublesome unwanted and problematic.
But what if there is another way? What if it isn’t a straight choice between repression and expression?
I like to think of responding to emotions as a two-step process. It is always, always, important for you to feel and acknowledge your own emotions. How you are feeling tells you something about what is happening to you. Like thoughts, feelings aren’t always telling you what’s true but they are telling you something about what you are experiencing. In that way, they are important for you to pay attention to.
However, it can be important to sit with feeling and to reflect on meaning. To explore what’s really happening for you and put your feelings in context with what you know about the situation, through thoughts and trust and experience. It’s then that you can decide what to do with your feelings. Whether you want to act on them, to take them to another person, or whether you want to work with them in yourself. From this place of having processed your feelings, you can then take them to another calmly, without emotion running the show.
In this way, feelings are honoured and met, but we don’t get pulled into drama by them.
This process can be learnt by anyone – it takes patience, courage, self-care and honesty. But the rewards it offers can be great. These include being in touch with and honouring your feelings, along with greater harmony in relationships – and an end to an impossible choice of what to do when faced with difficult feelings.