If I could summarize what I learned in treatment in one sentence it would be this: It is okay to feel feelings.
When I entered residential treatment two months ago, accepting and expressing emotions was not something I had planned to work on. As simple and silly as feeling feelings may sound it isn’t easy for everyone. My automatic mode before treatment was to remain aloof to feelings, or to numb and avoid. This issue came up while I was in treatment so I had the opportunity to work on it.
But why would we want to feel negative emotions if avoiding is a possibility? I asked this questions many times. Staff usually tried to explain to me that it is part of the “human experience” and it lets you experience “the whole range of human emotions.” I’m not a huge fan of this reasoning (hence the quotations), plus I think the answer is simpler. Another counselor explained plainly that avoiding feelings doesn’t work as a long-term strategy. Feelings build up and then when you need to express or deal with them you don’t know how. That makes more sense to me. Staff also tried using the rationale that emotions are what allow us to connect with others. Likewise, emotions are what take a good movie or book, and make it incredible. I’m beginning to see the truth in these reasons.
As I’ve been thinking about this more and trying to practice, something that stands out to me is a formula we discussed in group therapy: Pain + Resistance = Suffering. When you try to fight and push away emotions they only get worse. You focus on the emotions, they feel more intense and inescapable, and you suffer. On the contrary, when you let yourself feel emotions and accept them, the emotions go away on their own. Emotions will never last forever and the more you let yourself actually feel them, the faster their intensity fades. Emotions are simply enough just emotions. There is no such thing as “good” emotions or “bad” emotions. Labeling certain emotions as “bad” is only part of resisting them. Besides, everyone has emotions; they are inevitable for every person on this planet. By accepting rather than resisting emotions, you can feel sad, anxious, angry, whatever but you don’t suffer.
This is something that definitely takes practice and it has taken over two months for me to finally begin to understand what staff was saying. Plus, it is very scary at first to go from feeling almost nothing to letting yourself feel emotions so intensely. However, as I’ve practiced doing this more and more it has taken some of the fear out of “negative” emotions. I’m learning I can handle them and they will eventually fade. I don’t need to try to run from them.
Every morning in treatment we started by setting a goal for the day. My goal during my last few days in the program was to let myself cry while saying goodbye to people. As I cried my way through my goodbye party and speech of advice for the other residents I managed to croak out, “It is okay to feel feelings.” I’d call that a good start.