By Felicity Dineen, LPC
As a therapist I feel like I say, “What does that feel like for you?” at least 100 times per day. Usually the response is actually not a feelings word at all but rather an explanation or justification of what led me to ask that question in the first place.
There’s a simple answer for why this happens: Feelings are hard. They are complicated, make us vulnerable, and often trigger shame or guilt in us for having or not having them in the first place. When a client is able to identify a feeling, it’s often followed by, “Is that right?’ or “Is that normal?” to which I always respond with acceptance. As with everything else in life we like to be right and validated that we’re correct. To my clients’ dismay, when it comes to feelings, there is no right: They simply are what they are.
People usually come to therapy after an event or catalyst has created uncomfortable feelings that did not feel “right” to them. Some come because they don’t know what they feel and have to learn how to experience or identify their feelings for the first time; others come because they have too many feelings that are overwhelming. Both of these “too much” or “too little” states triggers the same underlying feeling of shame, the sense that “Something is wrong with me.”
More often than not, our discomfort with or criticism of our own feelings goes back to how our feelings were responded to as kids. We might have been taught early on that some feelings are good and others bad. We thus learn not to accept or have a healthy relationship with our feelings, nor do we develop the capacity to understand why we feel them. Had our feelings been accepted and validated as understandable, we would have learned how to effectively respond to our feelings: with compassion.
Take a moment and imagine how differently you might feel about your anger, if when you were young, an adult had said to you, “It’s ok that you feel angry. Let’s figure out why and how to work through it.” Crazy, right? Well, the good news is, it’s not too late to try this now, the difference being you are the adult who is going to have this conversation with yourself. What if next time, instead of criticizing yourself for your anger—or any feeling you have a hard time with—you accept it and offer yourself compassion for having that difficult emotion? In doing so, you will best know how to proceed.
Similarly, when you find yourself asking “Is this normal?” you can simply say, “It is what it is,” because there is no normal or right way to feel, but plenty of ways to gain understanding of your feelings. And there are some wonderful therapists who can help you get there!