The willingness to feel

“Knowing yourself is the beginning of all wisdom.” Aristotle

For my birthday month of June, I’m going to write about my very favorite subject—Human emotions!

It’s often a misunderstood belief that positive psychology is simply a “Happiology”— that we slap on a smile and “just be positive” no matter what is happening. The truth is, a wide exploration of the work of researchers shows us that true emotional intelligence implies embracing the whole of oneself, even the not so easy to feel emotions.

Imagine your emotions like a rainbow encompassing a wide color range. We don’t want to “cut out” some of them, we want to honor the entire range of feelings. The worst thing we can do for our emotional health is to repress our emotions—they get backed up and clog up the system, and that approach will eventually backfire, causing illness and a decrease in wellbeing.

When we stifle our emotions, it also contributes to a lack of overall awareness of ourselves, causing us to feel out of touch with our feelings. Yes, we want to experience joy and happiness as much as possible—research has shown that happier people are more successful in almost every area of life, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t purpose to our negative emotions. They are trying to tell us something and we should pay attention to them—learning from them and making adjustments in our lives. Maybe we are angry because we feel taken advantage of, or scared because in trying something new, we are stepping out of our comfort zone, or maybe we feel sad because we’ve lost a loved one. If we are afraid to feel fear, for example, then we will make decisions that don’t give us the opportunities for the growth that is the underpinning of a thriving life.

Most people will agree that negative emotional states are uncomfortable—fear, sadness and anger, etc. You likely have one or two of these that make you really uncomfortable. For me, anger was always the challenging one. It’s the one I wanted to repress, skip over or run from. It has taken a good 10 years of effort for me to embrace my anger, “allow” it to move through me, and to work with its messages.

Arising emotions usually don’t require immediate action. When we give them time to move through us and be processed, we build emotional agility within, eventually leading to greater self-awareness and more conscious action.

I like to think of emotion as “energy in motion.” When strong emotions are triggered by a situation, the willingness to fully feel them can be very powerful. For example, if you are adept at breathing through a feeling of fear, you develop courage. If you are willing to take the time to feel and breathe your anger first, you might react differently in a disagreement with a loved one or co-worker. And if you give your sadness time to work its self through, it becomes easier to feel and honor your grief.

Next time you are hit with a wave of emotion, don’t react right away, instead let yourself feel it. Try to put the feeling into words, and then get curious about the intuitive messages that often follow after the wave passes.

Lots of love and happy feeling!