Feelings can be HARD. The ones that are uncomfortable or painful are just so … uncomfortable and painful. They feel bad and can be overwhelming to the point that we can’t feel or focus on anything else. We get stuck in them.
So, how do we manage overwhelming feelings? We can’t just make them go away or decide not to feel them. Feelings don’t work like that.
The trick is to make room for them. Our instinct is to do the opposite – we want to squash painful feelings, but when we try, they tend to get more intense. If we make room for them, we can get distance from them so they’re not so in our face.
What does it mean to “make room” for a feeling? How do we actually do that?
I’ve got two strategies to keep in your back pocket.
This is an acceptance exercise used in Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT). It reminds us that they are “just” feelings. They are not us, and they are not bigger than us. We are always bigger than they are, even when it doesn’t feel that way.
When we identify a feeling, we automatically take away some of its power. Naming the feeling is always helpful.
When we locate it in our body, we are getting ourselves out of our analytical brains – important for working with feelings.
When we stand in front of the feeling and observe it, we automatically have some separation from it. We’ve put some room between us so can see its edges. We have found a way to have perspective about it.
When we ask ourselves those six observational questions, we’re putting our focus on something besides the discomfort. We’re moving away from experiencing the feeling as a problem and learning a different way of engaging with itus – just noticing.
When we pause and breathe, we are pairing relaxation with the feeling, which reduces some of its intensity. When we imagine massaging the feeling with our breath, we are creating some compassion for the feeling. It is no longer an unseen, unknown, enormous, all bad, overwhelming force.
It’s not about changing the feeling itself but changing your relationship to the feeling. When we imagine lots of space around it, we create a way to get distance from it. This distance allows us to notice other feelings or thoughts. We’ve made room for the feeling to be there without it being the only thing we can see.
By looking around and noticing what else is in the warehouse, we’re actively taking our focus off of the feeling. This is how we get unstuck, and it’s much easier to do once we have a little distance.
We can’t make an overwhelming feeling “go away,” but we can lessen its intensity by making room for it. Start by naming it. Take three giant steps back and observe it. Look for its edges and notice its characteristics. Then look around and find other feelings, thoughts, sights, or sounds to take your attention. I promise you they are there.
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