Embracing the Internal Discomfort

I went walking with a friend last week at the Forks.  There were people skating on the ice in front of the Forks…but nobody was on the ice past the orange pylons and yellow tape.

Good thing…because as cold as it was, there was open water on the river.  My pal and I walked on the river walk beside the river, unlike many winters when we have walked on a path directly on the river.

I didn’t try walking on the river’s ice last week.  Why?

Because it scared me to try. Thin ice terrifies me.

The orange pylons and yellow tape was a warning that I and the rest of the public listened to.  The fear of what would happen if we went on the thin ice kept us alive.

The fear kept me safe.

I’m glad I was scared.  It was a good thing for all the others to fear going beyond the safe zones, too.

There is a movement in our culture to “be happy”.  It seems every other article, blog or picture on Facebook is about becoming happy, being happy, staying happy, and pursuing happiness. Heck, “the pursuit of happiness” is entrenched in the American Declaration of Independence.

We have decided that happiness, joy, peacefulness, calmness are “good emotions” to be pursued.

And things like sadness, anger, jealousy, guilt, regret are “negative emotions” and to be avoided.

We feel guilty about feeling guilty, we are anxious about our anxiety, and we get angry at how angry we are…we somehow berate ourselves for feeling what we feel.

I’m not so sure about that.  There is some discomfort experiencing sadness, anger, guilt and disappointment. Allowing ourselves to feel those emotions, and gain insight and information by the experience of that leaning into that feeling, we can move forward with greater wisdom, insight and richness in our lives.


“The primary benefit of anger for an individual,” [researcher Aaron] Sell says, “is preventing oneself from being exploited.”

When your husband forgets your birthday, and he works late, long into the evening, yet again…and you let him know you are pissed off when he walks in the door–well, that won’t be a moment that will be comfortable for either of you. You may rage at him, he may get defensive.  You will let him know how angry you are.  Hostile words may be exchanged.  You will let him know how upsetting it is that he has not priori zed you with his time, or in his mind to take note of an important event of your birthday. It will have the feeling of ugliness to it.

The energy the anger gives you will propel you to let him know that this relationship isn’t working for you like he. He will have a chance to see how upset you are.  He will have the opportunity to realize how much it bothers you and it can serve as a wake up call.

Those sorts of arguments/fights/animated discussions aren’t pleasant, but they are often the catalyst to making important shifts that are of significant long term benefit.

Regret and Disappointment:

I had company a while back…and it had been a busy week.  I left it to the afternoon of the party to purchase the food, get my house ready and prepare the food.  When they arrived, I was still scrambling to get the last of the food ready, and while I’m hardly the 50’s type of woman to put a fresh frock on before company arrives, I would have loved to change my tomato sauce stained shirt and run a brush through my hair. I felt behind and scrambling the whole party…and it felt a little frantic and not so much fun for me.  And I’m guessing my guests could tell.

I was disappointed in myself, and regretted how it happened.

But feeling those feelings was really helpful.  Now, when I have parties, I’m more deliberate about doing most of the shopping a couple of days ahead, and doing some of the prep ahead of time.  I host a party differently now…and I have more fun.  It’s good for me, and for those I host.

Sadness and Grief:

Grief is a normal reaction by a normal person to losing someone or something that matters.  It is a way of acknowledging the hole that is left behind with the loss. It is a way of experiencing that hole and mourning it…and, over time, developing a clarity about how to move forward with clarity.

As painful as grief is, wouldn’t it be even more sad to not ever have reason to grieve?

From Psychology Today:

Sadness comes in response to a real or potential loss and signals that restoration is needed. As a result, it motivates change, and different types of sadness stimulate different types of fix. In one study, subjects imagined losing a loved one to cancer, failing to achieve an important goal, or just going to the grocery store, and then listed all the things they’d like to do. Those who felt a relationship loss outlined the most social activities, and those who felt failure listed more work-related activities. We try to make right the cause of our anguish.

Sadness makes you more rational, your thinking more concrete. It reduces gullibility, forgetfulness, and susceptibility to stereotypes. It also makes you more sensitive to social norms, increasing politeness and fairness. By contrast, happiness can lead to superficial thinking, hubris, and risk taking. Accepting negative feelings such as sadness can, ironically, lower depression; it doesn’t compound the problem by making people feel bad for feeling bad.

So…these emotions are not comfortable…but they are adaptive in that they motivate us to take care of ourselves, they compel us to move forward to reduce the need for those feelings.

Some tips for experiencing uncomfortable emotions:

1.  Allow yourself to feel them, to lean into them, and to move through them.

A lot of people avoid uncomfortable emotions because they are worried they will get stuck in them, or overwhelmed by them. Ironically, it’s the avoiding of the anger that creates the problem.  Imagine if a neighbour scoops his snow from his walk onto yours repeatedly.  You avoid feeling the anger and therefore don’t deal with it.  He continues to scoop onto your walk and your anger and resentment builds.

Allow yourself to feel these emotions with the understanding that you can and will move through it. You won’t always feel such rage at your ex-partner, or your cheating boss.

Glennon Melton writes: “When the feelings come, let  them – because letting them come is the only way they GO.”

When the feelings come, let them – because letting them come is the only way they GO. Quote by Glennon Doyle Melton, Poster by Bergen and Associates Counselling in Winnipeg

2. Feel these feelings, but choose not to immediately act on them.

Often the painful part of uncomfortable emotions is the acting out in “knee jerk” sorts of ways that aren’t well thought through.

  • Anger has a person punch a hole in the dry wall…or at another person
  • Grief has a person begin to date far too quickly–with disastrous results
  • Disappointment has a person drown their sorrow in a drink or ten…and then things are said and done that increase regret the next day

Allow yourself to feel them, but to be mindful to not impulsively act out of them. The emotions we feel provide us with valuable information that may take some time to discern.

3. Trust that difficult emotions have something to teach us.

Emotions have a critical job to do. They provide us with critical energy, insight, and motivation that is important.

Often people come to counselling because they feel a feeling that they don’t understand and want to develop insight.  It’s confusing when:

  • a co-worker’s daughter dies and you fall apart at the death, even though you hardly know her (but maybe this has to something to do with your sister’s death 20 years ago that you never got to grieve?)
  • you give birth to a beautiful baby whom you love dearly…but you have such feelings of sadness and loss and being overwhelmed
  • you love your partner very much, but there is a fear in becoming sexually aroused

It’s a powerful thing to uncover what those feelings have to teach you.

4. Work to act on behalf of those emotions, rather than out of those emotions

My Junior Tribe Members have driven me to rage at times…like all kids do and can.  My better parenting moments have been when I have given myself some time understand my anger (I’ve got a canned line in my back pocket that goes something like, “If I continue to have this conversation with you right now, I’m not going to represent myself well, so let’s continue this when I’ve had a chance to think about myself”…said between gritted teeth on occasion).

Then, after I’ve thought about it, I speak on behalf of my anger, “There is a part of me that feels very taken advantage of when you don’t clean up after yourself in the kitchen.  What is happening now isn’t working. If we don’t figger something out, I’m gonna lose it one of these days, and neither of us wants that!”

That works better than when I yell out of my anger in the moment: “You NEVER clean up your dishes.  How dare you treat me like the maid. I’m tired of being treated like dirt and I’m not gonna take it anymore.” and then I proceed to provide a consequence that is completely unreasonable…and then I have to apologize.

Take the emotion and roll it around in your head.  Feel it, move it this way and that…and look at all sides…and decide what it needs you to know.

  • Grief often has us pull to isolate when it is actually calling for connection
  • Embarrassment often has us desire to hide, when what it may be calling for is to normalize an awkward social situation to have everybody feel at ease (for example, if you said some things you shouldn’t have when you were tipsy last night, it may be a sign to give a few people a call and apologize–and then decide how much you are going to drink next time)
  • Tears are often something we avoid in front of others…but they are important social cues to another that you are in some distress.  That’s not always a bad thing for others to know you are struggling and could use an empathic moment.

5. Trust yourself

When you feel something, you feel it.  It’s valid.  That’s important.

You may need to understand the layers of it (for example, you may be enraged at your boss…but on reflection it’s because this is the third boss who hasn’t been respectful of your time.  That may mean you watch how much you unload on this current boss–but it may compel you to figure out a working situation with a boss that treats you right (and why you apparently unconsciously set yourself up that way).

Your feelings are important.  Even the ones that make you uncomfortable.  Even the ones that make others uncomfortable.

Let people who have earned the right to hear your story, hear of the uncomfortable emotions you have–trust them enough to give voice to them, and explore what it is that creates them, and what those feelings are telling you to do.

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