What Can I Do to Start Feeling Better?
Updated: Apr 18, 2020
As a therapist, I see a lot of pain and suffering. When I meet new clients who are overwhelmed with intense emotional discomfort, I am often asked during our first session, “What can I do to start feeling better?” Every psychotherapist knows that it’s difficult to answer this question without knowing the person. Yet, I find it even more difficult to leave this question unanswered.
We are all familiar with emotional discomfort, sometimes quite intense. It can be sadness, frustration, anxiety, guilt, shame, anger, loneliness, or even despair. We all know what it’s like to feel stressed out and overwhelmed. And though everyone’s range and frequency of difficult emotions is different, there seems to be a common thread: We often tend to feel bad about feeling bad. When I realized how common this tendency is, I found answer to the challenging first-session question. Yes, there is something that many of my clients can do to start feeling better right away!
“Allow yourself to feel whatever comes up,” now I often advise my new clients. “Accept your difficult feelings. Instead of judging them (as in ‘I shouldn’t feel this way’), observe them with curiosity. Allow yourself to feel your feelings.”
If this advice sounds counter-intuitive, let me explain. The opposite of acceptance is resistance. If we resist our unpleasant emotions (deny, judge, or suppress them), they linger around – what we resist persists. Moreover, when we resist these feelings, we add another layer of suffering. Not only do we feel unhappy because of what has happened, is happening, or may happen; we also feel unhappy about feeling unhappy. When we accept our unpleasant emotions, we remove this additional layer of unhappiness; moreover, our difficult emotions seem to lose their power over us.
The idea of accepting unpleasant emotions is not new. It can be traced back to the Buddhist concept of mindfulness. It is now part of many counselling models, such as mindfulness-based cognitive therapy, acceptance and commitment therapy, and dialectical behavioural therapy. Moreover, acceptance of one’s uncomfortable emotions has been backed by a body of research connecting the habit to better emotional resilience and mental health. But for me, this idea has come alive thanks to Marsha Linehan, Eckhart Tolle, and my clients.
So, instead of resisting our unpleasant feelings, let’s acknowledge them. Without feelings, we would not know where we are in life, nor would we know what areas to work on. As the first step, let’s accept our difficult feelings, so we can empower ourselves to change them.