Here I am at work in my therapy practice, sitting across from yet another client who is telling me that they can’t understand why they are struggling so much when they “know there are people in the world who have it way worse.”
It’s just what we do. I hear it outside of the therapy room too. Or some variation.
“Let’s just count our blessings.”
“Look on the bright side.”
“Find a way to be happy.”
“Practice more gratitude.”
I don’t have a problem with doing any of those things, but I do have a major problem with trying to be emotional managers.
Mostly because that goal to “just be happy/joyful” is one of the biggest reasons my clients wind up clinging to disordered behavior. In fact, our desire to never feel an ounce of discomfort makes us pretty desperate to try anything and everything to get rid of even the slightest hint of anxiety, sadness, anger, and the list could go on. So what do we do? We shop, eat, don’t eat, over exercise, watch 500 hours of Netflix, avoid people. Avoid, avoid, avoid. Even as our lives and all the things we used to love are crumbling around us.
We don’t even stop at getting rid of and managing our own pain, we try to manage other people’s as well.
“I just want my teenager to be happy again.”
“When are you going to snap out of it?”
“I just want the old you back.”
“It’s time to move on and look at the bright side of life.”
“I just don’t want her to feel anxious.”
People often ask me why it seems like people are struggling more than ever these days. My answer is usually twofold:
I think more people talk about their struggles now.
I think emotional avoidance is at an all-time high. Avoidance means trying to not experience things that are difficult and uncomfortable.
I have a way of helping my younger clients understand avoidance, and I hope it can help you as well. I have this game I play with them to help them identify difficult thoughts and feelings, and I use the emotion cards to help explain the concept of avoidance.
This deck of cards includes all of the available emotions that researchers could identify. I have my clients take the deck and divide the cards into two piles: feelings that are comfortable on the left and feelings that are uncomfortable on the right.
This is what you end up with:
What do you notice?
There are more uncomfortable feelings than comfortable ones!
Why do you think that is?
Knowing that there are just more uncomfortable emotions than comfortable, how likely is it that you will feel “happy all the time?”
Statistically, impossible. Someone else can do the math.
So stop trying to not feel sad, mad, anxious. Stop trying to change the way people around you feel. If you don’t stop trying to be an emotional manager here is what will happen:
Let’s use the example of grief. Grief is feeling sad about losing a loved one. These two blue dots represents your want for your loved one back and the sad truth that you cannot have what you truly want.
In this gap (between what you have and what you want), an uncomfortable feeling will always show up. In this case the feeling is grief. Which is really just big sadness.
You would expect to feel that, right? Yet so many of my clients judge this feeling and try to avoid it. So then they start to feel anxious. “Oh no! What if I feel that awful sadness again? I HAVE TO MAKE IT GO AWAY!”
Which then leads to feelings of disgust. “What is wrong with me that I can’t stop feeling this way, I am so disgusted with myself!”
Then this leads to anger. “I hate everything! My life is going wrong. I am so angry! It’s not fair that I feel this way and everyone else just gets to enjoy their life!”
Which then leads to guilt. “I am so ashamed that I am feeling this way and can’t change it! I should just be happy for other people. I should just count my blessings!”
Do you see what happened? You start with one, “normal” or natural feeling and you try to avoid it and end up feeling a whole pile of discomfort.
In acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) we call this clean discomfort vs. dirty discomfort. Clean discomfort is the way you would naturally expect to feel given the circumstances. Dirty discomfort is what you wind up feeling after you try to avoid feeling anything uncomfortable. Guess what? You still end up feeling the original sadness! Now it is just compounded by a bunch of other uncomfortable feelings.
So if you or someone you love is hurting and you are feeling the need to “fix it,” here are some things you can do instead:
- Examine what is at the root of your need to have the solution or your own discomfort with uncomfortable thoughts and feelings.
- Listen for what feeling they are relaying and name it. “Man, that sounds really scary/sad/difficult.”
- Validate that it is totally normal and natural to feel scared in a scary situation, sad in a sad situation, and anxious in an uncomfortable situation.
- Sit there and just notice what comes up. For you or for the other person. You don’t have to have perfect words, and it is okay to just be present.
I promise you comparing pain won’t make pain go away. All you will have left is pain and guilt. It’s okay to feel pain; it is alerting you to something that is important and needs attention. If you can focus your energy on figuring out what your pain is telling you instead of avoiding it, you are far more likely to find healing.
We don’t have to manage feelings–ours or the feelings of others. They all serve a purpose. They are all God-given, even the painful ones. We believe that he created us in his image and this should tell us that we have a God who deeply understands or emotions. All of them. Not just the comfortable stuff. He also created the full range of human emotions for a specific purpose. Get curious about what your discomfort is telling you instead of running from it, minimizing it, or judging it.
What would it look like to stop trying to minimize your discomfort and the pain of others?
Celeste Smith is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist Associate and eating disorder specialist from Tyler, Texas. Celeste and her husband have been in youth ministry for 16 years and currently work for Glenwood Church of Christ. She is passionate about self care, self acceptance, intuitive eating, and the church. Celeste desires to advocate for the church to become a safer space to those experiencing mental health struggles. She loves youth ministry, reading, spending time with her three children, coffee on the porch with her husband, road trips, and backpacking.