By Jill Bajorek, LCSW
“Keep thinking positively!” “Focus on the good instead of the bad.” “Don’t allow negative thoughts.” “Just let it go!” We’ve heard these pieces of advice before, right? Sure, it would be great to have a life full of only positive experiences and feeling good all the time. The problem is, that’s not realistic—and if we try to do that, we might be avoiding some important moments.
Sometimes to achieve a sense of calm, we must first recognize what’s chaotic. This means identifying, understanding, and reconciling negative feelings. At Encircle, we like to think of that process as honoring and releasing. If you’ve ever experienced being mad, upset, angry, disappointed, scared, shocked, saddened (the list goes on!), something probably happened to you to cause those feelings. There are a wide range of those unpleasant emotions, and the fact that we humans have the capacity to experience them tells us that they are natural and necessary. This is how we cope. This is how our mind tells us we don’t like something. It just makes sense to listen to our mind rather than telling it it’s wrong.
We can feel multiple negative emotions at a time. That might be confusing because we often aren’t given space to feel them at all, let alone distinguish between them and decide what to do with them. One of the reasons we don’t often have that space is it’s uncomfortable for us to sit with those emotions. We typically like avoiding things that are unpleasant, even if it would serve us better in the long run. Another reason is it’s uncomfortable for others to be around us when we are experiencing them. We are often told to ignore those negative feelings because other people don’t like sitting with our negative emotions either. In an effort to please those people when they tell us not to feel bad, we literally stop ourselves. We pretend everything is ok, but in doing so we dismiss what we are actually feeling.
Making these ideas more tangible can help us accept the feelings. If you’re sad, did something happen recently to cause that? You’re allowed to dig deeper into the feelings to help explain them. Did you receive bad news or struggle with something in your life? Maybe the feelings are a manifestation of anxiety or fear. Doesn’t it make sense that you’d have a negative reaction to that? This is the important part—our negative emotions are reactions to things; they are not the problems themselves. This doesn’t mean they aren’t uncomfortable or that we are powerless, but it does help us get to that point of acceptance. Those feelings are our mind’s way of trying to protect itself. Sometimes the triggering incident is even hard to pinpoint, and the challenge is to believe ourselves anyway. This is how we honor the feelings through acceptance.
Once we accept we are feeling a certain way, we can work on that reconciling or releasing. Often times, it’s helpful to sit with the emotions. If we are reacting to something unpleasant, allowing space to feel that way is continuing that idea of believing ourselves. If we start feeling down, we can make sure we don’t judge ourselves or start thinking we are overreacting, and instead give ourselves the emotional space of listening and caring. When we react to our negative emotions by blocking them, it can become a cycle of essentially fighting with ourselves and not really solving anything. It can be so powerful to just say out loud “I’m upset right now.”
One of the ways we can release these feelings is by realizing there’s nothing more we can do. It might seem counterintuitive, but recognizing what we cannot control can be powerful. We so often seek every possible way we can have control because that feels safer, but that can lead to searching for control endlessly in situations where we just can’t have it. In those cases, accepting the unpleasant situation is more realistic. What we can control is our ability to believe ourselves, to be supportive, and to comfort when we need it.
We hope this encourages you to go to the unpleasant place a bit more, knowing it’s for a good reason. The more you start believing yourself and allowing space for negativity, the less scary it will be when it happens again, and the more you’re going to understand that it has a purpose. Say it to yourself- I’m allowed to feel bad…this means my mind is telling me something and I want to listen to myself.