"Just be grateful for what you have." "Don't worry, everything's going to be fine." "Just think positive." Have you ever heard these responses when you've shared some challenging feelings you've been going through? In this episode, we explore the gift of giving ourselves and others the space to sit with our hard feelings (and what happens when we don't).
In this episode, Janice talks about the struggles we often face in sitting with our hard-to-feel feelings – like sadness, anger, grief, and shame – when they come up. And are they ever coming up for her during COVID times and at 1 month in her journey exploring her relationship with alcohol. Janice also discusses how we often unwittingly deny others of their emotional experiences, and shares some suggestions for how we can build our capacity to just be with all the feels.
Recorded on: May 11, 2020
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Hello, fam. How are y'all doing today? I hope life is treating you as well as it possibly can be during this time. I’m getting by. You know, it’s a process.
So, in my introduction for Season 2, I mentioned that I've been exploring my current relationship with alcohol. And that journey and all of the education I've been doing around alcohol dependency has been really positive, very empowering. And on the other hand, it's also been really challenging, because hard feelings are coming up for me all the time – whether it's because of COVID/self-isolation related stuff, or because diving into this exploration means revisiting some painful things from my past – and I no longer have the crutch of alcohol to go to when it's just getting a little too unbearable. So it’s been challenging some days to feel all the feels in this very raw state that I’m in.
So, today I wanted to talk about sitting with hard feelings, because it's been coming up for me a lot, but I’ve also been seeing it come up for so many other people, you know? I'm sure I don't even need to explain this to y'all, because each and every one of us is going through this COVID shit. And never mind just life in general, which is hard enough as it is, but this period of time is bringing up all sorts of things for people.
And I've heard it all, from immense anger to grief, to loneliness, sadness, and you can think about what that might be in your situation. You can also maybe think about whether there are specific feelings that you tend to experience repeatedly. Like, for me, I don’t experience anger very frequently, but I have been cycling in waves of grief and sadness quite a bit.
Why it's so hard to sit with our feelings
So, what I have been noticing is that it is often very difficult for people to just sit with those very hard-to-feel emotions. And by sitting with them, I mean just letting them be there in your body, turning your awareness to those feelings in that moment instead of shutting them down, trying to numb them, and so on.
And it’s not surprising, right? Because number one, those feelings can just in and of themselves feel very uncomfortable and painful. So, I'm not saying that this is something that we should just easily be able to handle and deal with. Like, there's real feelings of pain involved, and so it totally makes sense.
However, I also think that in addition to that, a really huge reason why we find it very difficult to sit with those feelings is because of the way that we've been conditioned socially, culturally, which often starts when we're kids and our parents tell us things like, "Don't cry, don't be sad, just be thankful for what you have, don't be angry." We receive all of this messaging that tells us that it is unacceptable to feel and express these types of emotions.
And it gets no better as we get older, right? It just keeps getting reinforced. We're told to "man up" – if you're a guy, and sometimes even if you’re of another gender. We're still told not to cry. We’re told to be strong. And I have a real problem with some of the things that are put out in the self-development world these days, where some so-called spiritual gurus say to just be positive, to just give gratitude when you're feeling like shit.
Why being with the full range of our emotions is important
Now, I'm not saying that those things in and of themselves are bad or wrong. They're absolutely not. I have a gratitude app on my phone called Presently – super simple but beautiful, I highly recommend it – and I use it almost every day to write down the things I'm grateful for that day. And I think that's such a useful and perspective-shifting practice.
The issue becomes when it's being taught as the only thing to do for one’s healing, and that there isn't also, in addition, some sort of guidance or messaging that says it's also okay to feel the really shitty feelings too, the really hard stuff. And that the knee-jerk reaction doesn't always have to be to push it away or get rid of it by saying positive affirmations and stuff in its place. You know what I mean? Like, there is room for both things to be present in our lives.
So, I want to just invite all of us, including myself, because this whole thing with not drinking right now has been very humbling for me to see that as much as people always say how much in tune I am with my feelings – and I am, I very much feel and share very openly – but it's clear that there are still things that I have not been feeling, and not wanting to feel, and numbing myself instead ... so I'm inviting all of us to think about it a little bit differently.
That when we're experiencing these really hard to feel emotions, to know it's okay, like, it's just a natural, normal, understandable part of our human experience. Without it, we would not be complete, right? And I think that is the thing – that when we are trying to remove those hard experiences from our lives, we are not allowing ourselves to be complete and to experience that full humanity.
To no fault of our own, because, again, it's just been conditioned in us. And I think we're oftentimes afraid that if we are to feel our anger, our shame, our sadness; that it means something deficient about us, that we are broken and incapable of being stronger. And that if we are to express it, we'll receive some sort of backlash or rejection. Our loved ones are gonna get turned off and be like, ugh, why is she so sad all the time?
So, it's to not fault of our own that we shy away from expressing those hard feelings. But oftentimes, I actually feel that the best thing we can do to alleviate the hard feelings is to let them sit there, as excruciating as that might sound.
Personal example of feeling grief
So, I'll give you an example, because a few days ago I was crying a lot and weeping quite loudly. I think my neighbours were probably like, oh my God, what's happening in there? I was going through half a roll of toilet paper, which we need to be conserving right now. I mean, no hoarding, but you know ...
But I was in a lot of despair and so immensely overcome with these emotions. And allowing myself to just sit with them for that moment, first of all, enabled me to identify what it was – and I realized it was grief. And also to then reflect on and figure out why I was feeling that grief. And the reason was because I was feeling heart-broken for my younger self and when she was in the depths of her alcohol dependency.
And I was grieving all of the things – the life experiences, the genuine moments of joy – that I felt was robbed from her, that was taken from her by the addiction. And how heart-breaking it was that she felt that alcohol was her only saving grace during that time, and that she didn't have the supports and the education and someone who looked like her to look to to know that she wasn't alone, and to maybe find a better way instead of just turning to alcohol every time there was pain – which was often. I grieved all of that.
So, I actually was talking to myself – and I do this sometimes, in my head; I mean, you can also talk out loud, there's no judgment here. But I was talking to myself in my head saying: I am feeling so much grief right now and it is so understandable that I would be, because what I'm going through right now is so hard, and what my younger self had to go through was so hard. So it's totally normal for me to be feeling these overwhelming feelings of grief and that I'm crying and just feeling profoundly sad about that. Because how else would I be feeling about that, right? And so, it's completely valid. If anything, it's expected that I would feel that way about those things.
So, just allowing myself that space to sit with my feelings, and the self-compassion to talk myself through them – as painful as it still felt – was actually the thing that allowed for it to move on and clear the way for me to then ground myself, bring down my nervous system, come to a place of calmness, dry the tears, make myself a hot tea and journal, and whatever else I needed in that moment to come out of the grief and into the present.
So, I just wanted to share that in case it's helpful to you when you're feeling whatever it is – the anger or profound loneliness or the sadness or the grief, the shame; shame is such a hard one to sit with. And you know, it's another story about whether those things are continuously coming up for you, and what might be the underlying reasons for that pattern, and if we are expressing them in ways that are maybe harmful to ourselves or our loved ones. Well, we gotta work on that too, but that's another episode. You know? But just starting with that period of time where it's about sitting with the feelings, having the self-compassion, so that we can then be in the right headspace to do the other work.
Learning how to be with our feelings through modeling
Now, I do think that it can be difficult to start this practice on our own, because in that moment of feeling despair or feeling a lot of shame or whatever it is, it's often hard to be also that voice that calms us down or speaks to ourselves objectively, right? I do think that comes with practice.
And for me, I think the reason I'm able to do that for myself now ... I’m not able to all the time; sometimes I really need to reach out to someone to be that external voice to guide me through it. But why I think I can do it much more easily now is because I started doing that with my therapist, where she was that voice for me, in a space where all my feelings and emotions and crying were welcome, and I felt safe and like my experiences weren’t being minimized.
So, it was almost like I got to learn from her through the way that she responded to me what felt comforting, what did actually help me heal. And then I could learn from her how to do that for myself. So, if you're used to just shutting down, withdrawing, trying to find distractions, or even just drowning or spiraling in the hard feelings when they come up – like, it could be on either end of the spectrum – it might feel really foreign to start that process of sitting with your hard feelings on your own.
Now, obviously not everybody is in therapy or has access to that, and maybe that's not even your thing, and that's cool. But if you do need someone to support you in that process, you could always still do that with a friend, somebody who you trust, someone who will just hold that space for you.
And I find that being able to have that experience where you do share and get to heal in connection with somebody, and feel all the feelings but within a safe space, and then do whatever you need to do to ground yourself and move out of it, like each time that you do that is kind of like practice and reinforcing the thing that most of us didn't get to learn growing up, or that we were told to do the opposite of, which is learning that it is actually okay, that these feelings are normal, and that we will come out of it alright, and we will still be loved after, and if anything, that will be part of what heals us and makes us better and stronger, and all of that stuff.
Holding space for other people's hard feelings
So, the other point I want to make is that I find that not only is it difficult for us oftentimes to sit with our own hard feelings, but I think it's sometimes hard for us to sit with other people's hard feelings. And I think part of it is that we don't like to see people suffering, especially our loved ones.
But I also think we've been taught through life experience, through social conditioning, again, often from when we're really young, that the way to respond when we see somebody in distress, sad, or whatever, is to, I find, either to give our advice and try to fix the situation for them, or to try and placate that person, to try and turn it into something that feels more palatable. That whole thing about, oh, don't be sad, just think about the positives.
And we may respond in both ways to people, right? And I'm certainly part of this too. I think it is just a knee-jerk reaction that we often go to right away, because many of us haven’t really learned how to do it differently. And if we haven't learned ourselves how to sit with our own hard feelings, it is really hard to know how to do that for somebody else.
So, just personally speaking, a big reason why I've started recording this podcast again is because I've actually been finding it difficult to share about some of the hard feelings coming up for me as I explore my relationship with alcohol. And so I guess this is my way of talking about it, but to, I don't know, whoever is listening out there. And if it's not another person, then I'm talking to myself and the mic.
And this is not to say anything about the people in my life, because I have incredible friends who I've been able to share a lot with concerning my feelings and hard things I'm going through. But I think because specifically with the alcohol stuff, a lot of people don't understand how addiction works on the brain, I'll often get a response that doesn't really align with the reality of that.
And it's to no fault of anybody, because who the hell would know about the neuroscience of addiction and what's happening in the brain with the neurotransmitters, and all of that stuff? But it can sometimes feel very exhausting to have to explain myself while I'm already going through a difficult time emotionally.
And it's not to be dismissive about it, but I'm sure y'all can think of a time when you've been going through your own thing – whether it's a super painful break-up or you've lost somebody through a death – and other people have obviously gone through those things, but in your situation, oftentimes it can feel like nobody understands and nobody ever could understand. And that words can sometimes not even express what you're going through, and you don't want to have to explain it in your moments of going through your shit, right?
So, I think that's where I'm at right now. And I would honestly just like sometimes to be able to just get it off my chest that I’m feeling grief, I’m really sad, and not have to then take on the emotional work of responding to their advice that I wasn’t seeking, even though I know it always comes from a loving place.
So, I do think that sometimes it's important for us all ... again, I'm totally inviting myself too to do this, because I've caught myself sometimes giving my advice, my personal experience in response to what a friend is going through, and then afterwards kicking myself in the ass because I'm like, oh my God, did I just shut this person down? Was I really being present for them and really hearing them, and maybe asking questions versus telling them things?
So, I invite all of us to maybe take a pause the next time we're inclined to just jump into that mode, or into the mode of telling people not to feel that way, or to just think about the good things going on. Because, inadvertently, we may be sending them the message that what they are feeling and going through is not valid.
And to maybe ask ourselves in that moment, well, why is it that I feel the need to tell them to not feel that way? Do I believe that them feeling that way is a bad thing? And why might I think that? Is it triggering something uncomfortable in me that really has nothing to do with them? Are there moments where I've gone through those hard feelings, and what would I have wanted to hear from a friend to feel heard and comforted in that moment? What are the kinds of things that have made me shut down instead when I've tried to share and I don't really hear the thing that I needed?
For me, all I need to hear sometimes is, “I’m really sorry to hear that. That sounds really tough what you’re going through. I’m always here for you if you need me.” That’s for me. I’m learning that some people don’t want to hear the words, “I’m sorry you went through that,” because it makes them feel like a victim and they don’t want to feel that way.” If we don’t know, we can always ask, “Hey, what do you need from me in this moment? Is there anything I can do to help?”
Now, I know what some of y’all are thinking. You’re like, but what if this person seriously needs my advice? Right? Maybe it’s that friend who is always coming to you with what seems like the same issue over and over again. Maybe it’s something that you’ve gone through yourself, and it’s like you can see the solution to their pain so clearly, and want to give this person the gift of clarity, right?
I get it, I so get it. And to that, I would say a couple of things. One is that the person might be fully willing to hear your perspective, but if they are so overcome by emotions at the outset, they may first need to feel a sense of safety talking with you, that they are being genuinely heard by you, that you’ve expressed that their feelings are valid, in order for their emotional state to come down a bit, enough that their rational brain and executive functioning can even come back online and process the advice you impart.
And the second thing is, again, we can always ask the person if they even want our advice in that moment. Because honestly, no matter how good you think your advice is, sometimes the person just doesn’t want to hear it, or isn’t ready to take it in yet, in that moment. And we have to respect that and know we can’t save everybody, we can’t take responsibility for everyone’s pain and life issues.
So, the last thing that I'll say on this is that I do think it's sometimes on us as the person who is sharing to take the initiative to educate a little bit on what it is that we do need, what we are seeking from the other person in response to us sharing. Because a lot of times, people just truly don't know and they're going to instinctively jump to the thing that they’ve learned and know how to do best to love and care for somebody, right?
So I'm holding myself to that. I don't think I've gone to this step yet of explicitly telling people: “Hey, I'm going through a hard time, I do want to talk about it, but I'm not looking for any advice. I'm really just hoping to have an ear and have your comfort and support. And really, that's all I need right now.”
So, that is all I wanted to talk about today. I hope that resonates with somebody out there. I hope it helps someone to feel a little more accepting of their hard feelings. I know it's all really difficult, it's all a process. But the more that we do it, I promise, the easier it gets.
Alright, thanks so much for being here and listening in. If you want to connect with me, you can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Let me know about your experiences sitting with hard feelings. What's been challenging for you, what has helped you?
You can follow me on social media. I'm @janicehoimages and @natureimmersed on Instagram. And @thesoulsworkpodcast on Facebook. We're gonna get this podcast back up on all the things, so look out for it on your favourite podcast player. But in the meantime, you can find all the episodes and show notes at https://www.thesoulsworkpodcast.com/.
Okay, y'all, until next time, be well, stay safe, lots of love. Peace.