Three Paths to Coping with Your Unbearable Feelings
For many people, their feelings give them trouble. Strong emotions arise all the time and people can find them very hard to deal with. For people in this situation, there are three main ways of coping – some better than others.
1 – Denial
The first way that people try to deal with their feelings are the twin methods of denial / eradication. When feelings are bearable, we can pretend that they are aren’t there at all, denying their existence to ourselves. When feelings are too strong to bear, we try to push them out of our minds by drinking too much and doing other increasingly extreme things. If our feelings are pushed away, we hope they won’t come back. One of the limits to this approach is that our feelings always come back, perhaps needing increasingly extreme measures to deal with them.
2 – Contexuralise
The second way is where we try to contextualise our feelings and diminish their effect by using a cognitive process like Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT). An example of this would be us saying ‘I’m sad because Maria has gone away but I shouldn’t be so sad because I know she’s coming back’ or ‘I’m angry with Brian but I shouldn’t be because I know he’s been under pressure at work’. In both these examples you have feelings but you fight against them through rationalising them.
This is a better approach to the first as it isn’t so self-denying – but it can often lead to self-critical thoughts such as ‘I’m wrong to have these feelings – they’re inappropriate’. With this approach you can start to replace your feelings with another feeling – either guilt or shame. But it’s a step in the right direction.
3 – Build a tolerance
The third way is to build your tolerance to your feelings. Rather than denying or derailing your feelings, you build your capacity to have strong feelings. I believe that we all have the capacity to increase our tolerance to our feelings over time. You still have them, but they don’t overwhelm you or threaten to upset your world. You can contain them as they rise, peak, then subside. This is a much better approach as your feelings are an essential part of you that is no longer being denied, eradicated or devalued. Further, because emotions are communications, if the communication isn’t deleted or derailed but instead received, their intensity may lessen.
I work with people’s strong feelings all the time, helping them to gradually bear the unbearable and get on with their lives.
– Tim Hill
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