Back to Blog
woman with calm face and closed eyes

The Art of Learning to Sit with Your Feelings

All human beings experience emotions. They are a critical component of our lives and crucial to our survival. We are designed to feel a broad range of emotions, some of which might be comfortable, and others may be uncomfortable. There are no two ways about it: we all dislike uncomfortable feelings. Experiencing unpleasant emotions is a natural part of our existence, even though we may not like it. As such, learning to sit with your feelings is essential for a healthy and balanced life.

Being happy consists of choosing appropriate acting, feeling and thinking options. Our emotions play a significant role in the quality of our lives. The mix of emotions and feelings that we experience are the natural response to external and internal stimuli. Many people may find it quite difficult to deal with challenging emotions.

I am happy to tell you that the ability and power to manage your feelings is largely in your hands. Learning to sit with your feelings no matter how unpleasant, can be the right step towards a better and more fulfilling life. Herein is a detailed and comprehensive account of all the aspects of sitting with your feelings that you need to know.

WHY IT’S HARD TO SIT WITH YOUR FEELINGS

There is a distinct difference between not liking unpleasant feelings but choosing to accept that they are an inevitable part of your life and opting to ride them through, versus taking uncomfortable feelings as unbearable and striving to get rid of them. A large percentage of people often make statements like “I can’t bear”, ”I can’t face”, ”I can’t tolerate” or “I can’t stand” distressing or painful emotions. The most natural thing for us as humans is to choose the path of least resistance. It sometimes seems ingrained in our psychology.

In this regard, we tend to either ignore or dismiss uncomfortable emotions. Due to a combination of environmental and biological factors, some of you may find it harder to cope with your emotions as compared to other individuals. There is a school of thought that some people are biologically more sensitive to negative emotions, experience them at a higher intensity, and experience them more quickly and for longer durations than others.

What this means is that you may experience uncomfortable feelings more and thus have a more difficult time managing the experiences. The experiences you encounter growing up from childhood through adolescence to adulthood shapes your ability to deal with your feelings. You may not have been taught ways to manage emotional distress in the appropriate manner. A good example of this is a child who is punished for exhibiting normal emotions such as crying when sad. Or you may have only encountered ways of dealing with emotions that are not at all helpful such as witnessing a loved one using substances to deal with their unpleasant emotions.

Not being able to sit with your feelings can result in the breeding of a whole plethora of problems, as it impedes your ability to have a fulfilling life as well. In most cases, people find it difficult to sit with high intensity or powerful emotions, for instance, strong feelings of despair after arguing with a loved one. However, it can also be the case for relatively lower intensity emotions such as anxiety about an important test or slight sadness when remembering a past break-up.

It is important to note that it is not the intensity of the emotion per se that determines your inability to sit with your feelings. Frequently it is how much you fear them, how unbearable they seem, how unpleasant they feel to them as well, and how much they seek to get away from it. Feelings that may be difficult to sit with are divided into three broad categories:

THE SAD

This category includes feelings that reflect or indicate sadness at different degrees of intensity. They include but are not limited to hurt, disappointment, guilt, depression, grief, despair, intrinsic sadness, shame, and misery.

These feelings can be accompanied by heightened physiological arousals such as restlessness and intense crying or by low physiological arousals such as fatigue, low energy levels, and heaviness. You may also have thoughts of hopelessness, regret, loss, inadequacy and an urge to hide away from life.

THE MAD

This category includes feelings that indicate anger at various degrees of intensity. They include but are not limited to agitation, disgust, frustration, irritation, anger, hatred, rage and jealousy. They are almost always accompanied by heightened physiological arousal such as increased heart rate, tension and feeling hot/sweaty. You may also exhibit thoughts of unfairness, wrongdoing, injustice and a strong urge to lash out in a certain manner.

THE SCARED

This category encompasses feelings that indicate fear at different degrees of intensity. They include but are not limited to anxiety, dread, panic, fear, nervousness and terror. These feelings are often accompanied by heightened physiological arousal such as increased heart rate, tension, sweating, increased breathing, shaking and butterflies in the stomach. You may experience thoughts of vulnerability, helplessness, threat and a strong urge to escape or avoid.

It is important to note that some people can find it difficult to sit with positive emotions, not just negative ones. They may have concerns that the positive feelings will result in them losing control in some way.

THE BENEFITS OF LEARNING TO COPE WITH YOUR FEELINGS

Given the factors above, it makes much sense to attempt to get away from anything that feels unpleasant to you. This strategy appears to work for some other things that can be uncomfortable such as cold, heat, pain or hunger. However, when it comes to emotions, this strategy always seems to backfire profoundly. That is the paradoxical nature of not learning to sit with your feelings.

The more we fear, struggle and attempt to avoid uncomfortable feelings, generally the worse the discomfort gets. To put it simply, your fear and avoidance of your feelings substantially magnify those concerns. Try to picture your feelings as a small puddle of water that is blocking your path. If you can learn that your feelings are not things to run away from or to be feared, then all you have is the puddle of water. If you choose to wait, you can hope for the puddle to dry up enough to enable you to jump over it.

On the other hand, you can simply choose to splash through it and keep forging ahead. However, if you struggle and fear your uncomfortable feelings and attempt everything to escape from them, all you are doing is adding more and more water to your puddle, and eventually, you will face a deep pond that you cannot splash through or jump over. This is the beneficial nature of learning to sit with your emotions. The sooner you start, the less intimidating your puddle of water will seem.

THE STEPS INVOLVED IN LEARNING TO SIT WITH YOUR FEELINGS

Learning to sit with your feelings basically, means nourishing your emotional intelligence and positive thought processes. Unlike conventional intelligence, which possesses a strong innate component, emotional intelligence is susceptible to great changes and improvements. Try the following methods and see them bring positive changes in your life.

1. KNOW YOUR EMOTIONS

This is the first and most important step in this process. You need to start observing your emotions. How do you feel, what type of thoughts go through your mind, and how do various events affect you? It is good practice to write down in a notebook the feelings and emotions you experience: upset, nervous, mistrusting, self-assured, apprehensive or generous. Write down their duration as well as the internal and external experiences that make changes possible.

It is important to note that you should never judge yourself at any time throughout this process. Always affirm to yourself that you can manage a feeling after you have written it down. Whenever you feel like you are not able to cope with a certain uncomfortable feeling, you can always take out your notebook and reaffirm yourself with what you jotted down.

2. LEARN THE ART OF CONTROLLING YOUR EMOTIONS

Contrary to popular belief, controlling your emotions is not exceptionally difficult. With constant practice, you can get better at it. Use your mind to your advantage. Your perception of emotional discomfort is greatly influenced by the kind of thoughts you allow your imagination to process.

Think of pleasant things and loved persons. Try as much as possible to avoid falling into negativity no matter what you might be feeling. Flee from it and actively make the decision to improve your mood. If you become anxious about the future, change your thinking theme. If you tend to lose your temper due to feelings of anger, practice ways to speak in a calm manner, breathe deeply and think of something funny.

Alternatively, you can get out for a moment, to allow the situation to cool down, and return once you are calmed down. If you feel inferior, think of your achievements throughout your life and your strengths. Whenever you are irritated, you can encourage yourself.

3. PRACTICE ACCEPTANCE

Frequently, when we try to avoid something, it bothers us even more. Cultivating acceptance is critical in coping with your feelings. Accepting that you feel uncomfortable about certain emotions does not in any way mean giving up. It is merely a promise you make to yourself that you will face the challenge.

Consequently, you will be better in a better place to be able to adjust and become more resourceful. Acceptance also involves letting go of the aspects that are beyond your control such as how someone else’s perception of you. It serves to help you deal better with that which you can manage.

Try to avoid dwelling on “what if?” and “why?” While you may not be able to change some things (biological component), accepting and planning for those that you can help you regain a sense of purpose and control.

4. CREATE AN ENVIRONMENT OF POSITIVE THINKING

There is so much variation in the way people react to triggers. Similar circumstances can always bring about different reactions. To a great extent, this is due to the fact that different individuals perceive and process information in very different ways. Markus gets upset when it rains, “Rain makes me nervous, umbrellas are a nuisance, traffic slows down, and people slip and hurt themselves”. On the other hand, Lucy assesses the fact differently: “I like the smell of wet soil, rain cleans the air, birds are happier, and plants and flowers grow.”

Their respective attitudes can affect the way they handle their emotions. Always observe a positive thinking style by rejecting negative thoughts and substituting them with alternative positive options. Pessimistic thoughts tend to take over you automatically and without following any logical pattern thus affecting your ability to cope with your feelings.

Positive thinking must be an ongoing, permanent style of mental activity. You should extend it to all aspects of your life. In this regard, always consider positive thinking about oneself, the past, the future, other people and your immediate environment. Moreover, positive thinking has mutual benefits including maintaining optimal social interactions, blocking anxiety, enhancing self-esteem as well as various health benefits.

5. PRACTICE SELF MOTIVATION

Lack of motivation often freezes situations. Lack of an attractive aim or goal disorients and achievement is affected. You should always try to turn around discouraging and depressive thoughts. Practice self-confidence and resilience. Cultivate the delight for simple and ordinary things.

Learn to enjoy what may not be attractive in the beginning, especially if it is something you must go through. Exercise emotional discipline and be realistic in your expectations; do not set up goals that are overly ambitious or not ambitious enough.


Negative emotions and feelings in themselves are not necessarily uncomfortable. They are normal and in various ways helpful to us. You only begin to feel like you cannot sit with your feelings when you evaluate your emotional experience as a bad thing. The good news is that it doesn’t have to be the case. You can always learn ways of coping with your feelings no matter how much trouble you have dealing with them.

 

Are you ready for 4 weeks of outstanding wellness? Refresh, renew and recharge your mental and emotional health with The 30 Day Self-Care Plan.

 

MIKE VENY'S WEEKLY EMAIL 

FREE dose of exclusive wellness and D&I insights for HR leaders.