Whether it’s depression or grief, anxiety, panic or fear, guilt or shame, anger or loneliness, sometimes we don’t like what we’re feeling and we don’t know what to do about it.

There are two main approaches that we commonly use which are not ideal, and there is one strategy which we can learn to use which is preferable.

Rejection of feelings

The first approach that doesn’t work so well is the attempt to not have the feelings in the first place. One way we try to accomplish this is to use basic denial—to refuse to admit, to others and maybe even to ourselves, that the feeling even exists. “I’m not angry. I’m not scared. I’m not depressed.” We prefer to stay blind to the feelings in an attempt to not feel them.

One risk of denying feelings is that they may manifest themselves in other ways. If feelings are not given expression verbally, they may seek expression behaviorally. This is what we mean by “acting-out,” where we show our feelings through our behavior such as resorting to eye-rolling and sarcasm even when we’re claiming to not be angry.

A second risk of denying feelings is the toll that they may take on the body physically and medically. If unpleasant feelings are not given a healthy venue for expression, they may cause physiological stress that results in real physical symptoms such as muscle tension, pain, headaches, gastro-intestinal upset, skin conditions and perhaps even more serious disease processes.

Another way we try to reject feelings is the frantic attempt to eschew or drown them out. We may recognize the feelings but try anything possible to get rid of them. This is the hot potato we deem to be intolerable and want only for it to go away. This may result in the overuse of medication or substances, other self-medicating strategies such as over-eating or spending, or a desperate search for some medical or psychological treatment to make the feelings disappear.

Holding onto feelings

On the other hand, sometimes we embrace the feelings—too much. Not knowing what else to do, we may harbor or even indulge anger, or sink into hopelessness, or ruminate about our anxieties and fears. This is not the rejection and avoidance of a feeling like a hot potato, but the carrying around of a whole sack of rotten potatoes.

Processing feelings

So the solution is not to reject or over-identify with unpleasant feelings, but to learn how to have and to process the feelings. The first step is to identify the feeling—to acknowledge honestly that the feeling is present and to call it by its proper name. Feelings like happy, sad, mad and glad may be easier to label, but more refined, nuanced feelings like “abandoned” or “apprehensive” may require more thought to identify.

The second step is to accept the feelings—to allow them to be, without judgment. “It’s okay that I feel this way.” “I’m not a bad person because I feel this way.”

The third step is to express the feelings, in a healthy way. The main way to express feelings is to use language and put the feelings into words. This can be the spoken word, where you describe your feelings to another, or out loud to yourself, or the silent words you use when thinking about your feelings in your own mind. It can also be the written word we use when journaling and such. Putting feelings into words gives them shape and form and makes them understandable. Additionally, feelings can be expressed beautifully through all forms of the visual and performance arts.

Art Frenz, Ph.D.

Image courtesy of Clarita/ Morguefile.com