Facing Difficult Feelings
Rabbi Dov Heller, LMFT
In Judaism, one of the most important character traits a person can acquire is being honest with one’s self. It is especially important to be honest about how we feel, particularly when we experience uncomfortable or unwanted feelings.
Greg has been married for 15 years. Over the last few years he has started to feel alone in the relationship but refuses to acknowledge his feelings. He tells himself, “She’s a great woman and. Mother, and I need to learn how to appreciate her more.” But the more he tries to rationalize his feelings, the more alone he feels. Even when they spend a weekend together, he still feels this nagging loneliness but pushes it out of his mind, telling himself, “Nothing’s perfect.” Eventually, he starts experiencing signs of depression and is prescribed an antidepressant. The medicine helps his depression but doesn’t help his isolation and loneliness.
Feelings are information. We should listen and learn from them. When we do, we grow and thrive. When we don’t, we may suffer the consequences of ignoring what they are trying to tell us. Greg’s marriage is not headed in a good direction. He could very possibly repair and rejuvenate his marriage if would start listening to and try to understand the meaning of his loneliness.
Unfortunately, Greg chooses to deny his feelings towards his wife because he is terrified that if he acknowledges how he really feels, it might jeopardize his relationship. He fears it could lead to divorce, which he dreads above anything else in life. So, he chooses to suffer silently in order to preserve his marriage and maintain the status quo. This means he avoids the very actions that could strengthen his marriage!
There are many ways in which we avoid facing the truth about how we feel. Most of the time, our avoidance is unconscious. Here are some of the more common ways we avoid acknowledging our feelings.
- Minimizingthe importance of our feelings. “It’s no big deal, lots of people tend to feel alone sometimes in their marriage.”
- Hoping the feeling will just go away. “Moods come and go. Hopefully tomorrow I’ll feel better.”
- Magical thinking. “This feeling will go away when I become a partner in the firm and feel more secure professionally.”
These three avoidance mechanisms were the main ways in which Greg avoided facing the truth about his anxiety. Other people might turn to the following additional mechanisms:
- Intellectualizing. “My anger is justified given the way she treated me.”
- Blaming others. “I feel this way because he keeps pushing my buttons.”
- Distraction. In our culture, people avoid their feelings by hiding behind their many “screens,” working, keeping busy, partying, and working out.
- Numbingfeelings by eating, sexual promiscuity, drugs such as alcohol, street and designer drugs.
- Denial, which is essentially flat-out lying to oneself.
- Accommodating and people pleasing. “I will feel better if people like me and approve of me.”
- Creating drama in relationships and co-dependency “I must take care of you, or you’ll leave me”
- Repressing and dissociatingare unconscious ways of pushing unwanted and dangerous feelings such as trauma states out of one’s consciousness
When we hide from the truth, we lose vitality, our emotional core is weakened, and we feel more conflicted. When we face reality, no matter uncomfortable or scary, we feel alive, stronger, and more at peace. As frightening as Greg’s feelings were, if he would tolerate the pain of facing the underlying meanings beneath his loneliness, he would feel stronger and more at peace with himself.
Are you running away from a discomforting feeling that creates fear of facing some painful truth about yourself or your life? Ask yourself: Am I afraid to face how I truly feel? What am I afraid of?
We need to be courageous in order to face our uncomfortable feelings and learn from them. In psychology, this is called affect tolerance. We must learn to embrace feelings and stop fighting them. Feelings truly are our teachers.
This being a human is a guest house
Every morning a new arrival,
A joy, a depression, an anger.
They show up as unexpected visitors.
Welcome and entertain them all.
Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows
Who sweep through your house,
Still treat each guest honorably.
He may be preparing you
For some new delight.
The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
Meet them at the door smiling
And invite them in.
Be grateful for whoever comes,
Because each visitor is there
to guide you towards some greater good.
-Adapted from a quote by Mewlana Jalaluddin Rumi
There are three steps we need to take in order to process and learn from our feelings:
- Name the feeling and take ownership of it.
- Ask, why am I feeling this? What is the meaning of what I’m feeling in the present context in which I’m experiencing it?
- What will I do now that I understand the meaning of this feeling?
Living in reality is difficult. Living with fantasies and lies is easier in the short run, but in the long run we suffer. If you truly want to be happier, feel stronger, and more at peace consider living more truthfully and honestly.