“I’m fine,” she said; I knew she wasn’t. I looked at the book she was reading. The title was something like “You Have To Feel It To Heal It.” Because I teach trauma informed care, I knew to say “I love you, and I’m here for you whatever you need.” In TIC for Caregivers, we talk a lot about “feeling sad, anxious, worry, fear, etc.” We say, “it’s okay not to be okay.” But, she is not a workshop participant. She is my good friend. Her sadness haunted me.
Ok, so I admit I’m an over thinker. I thought about how I process feelings — for days. I thought “I feel; I feel all the time.” So, I made a list. I like lists. I wrote “happy, love, passionate, kind, joy, levity, generous…” I remember feeling pretty cocky as I wrote my list. Then, it struck me like a bolt of lightning; all of these emotions were positive emotions. I had not written one negative emotion. Now, that was curious. Surely, I must have them, right?
Now, I cannot blame this on my upbringing, no; we always talked about our feelings. I’m going to have to own this. I realized I also repress negative emotions because it feels bad. I tell myself I should get over it. I’m too busy to deal with it or “this will pass.” But, sometimes it doesn’t pass, it lingers. In fact, I discovered that when we avoid dealing with negative feelings, there are very real negative consequences.
As individuals, we deal with (or deny) overwhelming experiences in different ways. Some people self-medicate, others prefer retail therapy while others lash out and hurt others. Sometimes it’s true, hurt people hurt people, often the person they hurt is themselves as with reckless behaviors. For me, I pretend everything is great until I convince myself. Then, I read The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma by Bessel van der Kolk, a psychiatrist. He suggests that when we bury our trauma (or overwhelming negative feelings), our mind may have forgotten, but our body has not. This is true!
When my Dad died, I kept so busy that I didn’t have time to grieve. Once the dust settled, and I couldn’t find anything else to do, I found myself on the couch completely immobile. For those who know me, this is huge! I am never still. I felt like a jellyfish; there was not a bone left in my body. I knew then that I needed to grieve. And, I did.
So, we know we need to face our yucky feelings; we know it’s not going to be fun, but how can we work through it? Here’s my list:
- Acknowledge the emotion, give yourself permission to feel it.
- Give it a name. Feeling “bad” is too vague, we need to know exactly what it is to understand its origin and process it. “I am feeling sad, or angry, or lonely, or grief, or shame.”
- Create a space in which to face this feeling. Allow it to wash over you. Breathe it, scream it or cry through it if you want to, but sometimes, the only way out of it is through it.
- If you are feeling adrift, find support, whether through a group, church or therapy. Connect with people who care about you. In fact, always stay connected with people who care about you.
- Have a pity party, no seriously, create a healing ritual for yourself. Some people make lists about things they will do to feel better (including talking to the person who may have caused the pain), some heal through meditation or exercise, while others rely on music therapy. A few of my friends actually make “mix tapes” (ex. break-up songs). The ritual is a part of your moving through the negative emotion on your way back to okay.
When we allow ourselves to feel our “negative stuff,” we can process it. It may not go away completely. That’s okay because you are no longer numbing or repressing these feelings; they no longer have control over you. Remember that while you are taking good care of the people in your world, they need you to take care of yourself, too. I wish you happiness, but when you’re not, it’s okay not to be okay.