Touching the Void – Working with Difficult Feelings
Most of us tend to shrink away from feelings such as fear, dread, anxiety, depression, shame, despair, guilt, sadness and anger. And why not? These are hard feelings. If we ignore then or distract ourselves, new feelings seem to take the place of these “hard”ones and we can move on. Who wants to be morbid and sad? In fact, for most of us it is not really a choice, right? Have you noticed that you often just recoil from these difficult feelings whether you want to or not? So why would anyone want to feel painful feelings?
Why it Matters
Well, turns out a lot is at stake here. For one thing, feelings do not really go away if we ignore them or distract ourselves. Our attention may move on to other things, but eventually it will circle around to the feeling we shut out. If we shut it out again, it will come back again – and again and again if we continue to avoid it. If this is our habit with feelings we do not like, then we end up with a lot of feelings circling around and around trying to get our attention. So much or our mental energy soon gets tied up in avoiding what is actually happening for us. Our lives become smaller and smaller as we are less and less able to tolerate our lives.
Avoidance of Feelings Backfires
These feelings want to be addressed. Hard to tolerate feelings are disturbances in our psyche trying to get our attention and call us to action. For most of us, avoiding “hard” feelings is just a habit that we learned a long time ago (from people and a culture that learned it a long time ago) and now we are mostly unaware that we do it. Just like a muscle that gets stronger the more resistance it must overcome, our feelings get most of their strength from our resisting them.
Facing Feelings Directly
We may think feeling these feelings is like falling into the void because it seems like we will be engulfed and overwhelmed. This is not true. When we actually turn and face are feelings head-on, much of the force and power behind them that we so feared seems to disappear like a gust of wind. It may not be easy, but it tends to feel much better in the long run.
We can be with our feelings if we are willing and, when we do, our lives are expanded. We get space around us because we can now tolerate ourselves. We can now receive the message that these feelings are trying to convey to us so that, instead of something to be avoided, these feelings are a rich source of vital information about our lives. Maybe there are changes we need to make. Maybe, like so much in the world, what is difficult cannot be changed (at least immediately) and we get to learn to accept the world the way it actually is. That does not mean approving, but we can stop wasting time and energy resisting the moment and our feelings (and the suffering resulting from this) and put that energy into making the lives and the world we want.
The Next Step
So how to begin? Making new habits means new behaviors and thoughts. It takes time and practice for a habit to make new and strong neural pathways in our brains. The first and essential first step is to simply make the time to feel. Our culture will conspire with you not to feel. You have to make an effort and carve out some time where you do not watch that show, read that book, eat that dessert, drink your beer, surf the Internet or any of the millions of other ways we have to distract ourselves.
Therapy can help too. So can a mindfulness practice (the subject of a future blog).