Making Friends with Feelings

By Ines Guariguata, LCSW, LCAT, ATR-BC, SEP

Feelings seem like a therapist’s favorite subject. It is the realm we supposedly feel most comfortable in, the one we love to observe, describe, catalog and glean meaning from. Yet, even for a therapist, feelings are not so ‘comfortable’ to be with. I sit with feelings, my clients’ and my own, daily. I witness how feelings can take up so much space in a room. Feelings can be daunting and unwieldy! They appear so big they can loom over us, outside the confines of our bodies. Feelings can weigh us down. Feelings often yell at us. In so many ways, they are not comfortable. These large, loud and unpleasant internal tenants are often the reason people show up in therapy. “Please, help me feel better!” can sum-up many treatment goals.

After years of working with overwhelming and painful feelings, my experience of them has evolved. I used to think they should be tamed like wild creatures. Taming them meant keeping them on the sidelines in well-labeled containers, making sure they didn’t ‘get of hand.’ Oh, and pleasant feelings became goals. The goal was to feel happy, content, inspired, courageous, etc. Pleasant feelings = good. Painful feelings = bad. This seemed all great and clear, except that it set-up a very unhelpful dynamic. It created a never-ending campaign against painful feelings. That’s a rather difficult way to live — — very high maintenance.

Now, I take a different approach. Pema Chödrön’s words describe my new intentions for myself and for clients, “Embracing the totality of your experience is one definition of having loving-kindness for yourself. Loving-kindness for yourself does not mean making sure you’re feeling good all the time.” Feeling good all the time isn’t possible. In fact, it isn’t even a helpful goal! If all feelings are treated as important, valid and welcome, then a new framework is possible that cultivates compassion and the capacity to live life more fully.

Feelings have stories to tell us. The task at hand, I believe, is learning to listen to all our feelings without getting swept away, overwhelmed, or paralyzed. We can build our capacity to connect to our wide range of feelings. In this scenario, pleasant ones get a chance to relate to painful ones (and vice versa). We get to have anxiety and joy, sadness and gratitude, anger and kindness. With mindfulness we can stay compassionately present to ourselves, inviting feelings in as guests. Learning to treat feelings like friends offers clients a more harmonious and kind way to see themselves. It certainly makes my work as a therapist much more hopeful and even fun !

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