Feelings are a normal part of the human experience. All human beings are born with the capability of feeling and thinking. Healthy individuals are able to use their reasoning (their thinking) to understand their feelings and decide how to respond to them. Individuals that grew up in a dysfunctional family, where emotions were not expressed in healthy, rational ways, often react to their feelings without the ability to use their thinking to sort through them and better understand them.
Feelings mean something. Feelings signal us that something is pleasant or unpleasant in our lives. Feelings that bring us pain are an indication that something is not going well in our lives. These feelings are significant. It is important to understand the meaning and underlying causes of painful emotions instead of work to push them away with distracting and often unhealthy behaviors. People who avoid processing their painful feelings risk having these emotions build up and cause more pain. Painful feelings are felt by everyone. People cannot always feel “good” and experience the pleasant emotions of life. At times, everyone will experience a painful feeling. However, individuals can suffer immensely when painful feelings become the “rule” instead of the “exception” to life.
When a person experiences an inevitable painful feeling it is essential that they use their thinking and intellect to assist in managing the unpleasant feelings. For example, an individual experiencing the loss of a relationship may tell themselves, “I feel lonely and sad due to my relationship ending. I know rationally that I will not feel lonely and sad forever because nothing lasts forever. Eventually, I will begin to feel better even though I feel lonely and sad in this moment”. This would be a healthy way of managing an intense, painful emotion. Unhealthy people who are unable to use their intellect to assist in managing painful emotions may make statements that sound like this, “I am sad and lonely because my relationship ended. I will be sad and lonely forever. I will always feel this way”. This type of statement is an unrealistic statement and serves to keep the individual feeling immense emotional pain.
Feeling can lie to us. Most of us do not want to experience unpleasant feelings. If we had a choice, we may choose to never feel unpleasant feelings that cause pain. If we adapt to always having pleasant feelings, even when unpleasant feelings would be acceptable, we fool ourselves into thinking that things are okay. When we train ourselves to push away our painful feelings, we are depriving ourselves of an opportunity to grow. Many activities that feel good immediately may also cause future pain. If we are looking for instant gratification to avoid dealing with our unpleasant, painful feelings, we are risking experiencing pain in the future because we are not dealing with what initially caused our painful feelings. We are simply avoiding.
Many things that feel “good” may not be “good” for us. These things include drugs and alcohol, destructive relationships, food, excess shopping, and over working or over exercising. We may feel “good” when we engage in these activities because we are avoiding our painful feelings, however, these behaviors are destructive and unhealthy. Individuals that consistently look for ways to avoid their painful feelings by engaging in activities that lead to instant gratification, often live a life full of emotional pain. They experience painful emotions on a daily basis.
Feelings are only feelings. Many of us grow up with messages which label certain feelings either “good” or “bad”. For example, if we grew up in an unhealthy emotional environment, we may have learned that feeling sad is “bad” and therefore “wrong”. Perhaps we were only allowed permission to express “happy” feelings in our family of origin. If this were the case, when we began to feel sad, we were denied the opportunity to express our sadness. We may have even felt guilt or shame for feeling sad in the first place.
On the other hand, if we grew up in an environment that promoted the expression of pain and suffering and denied the expression of happiness and joy, we would have learned that we are not “good enough” to experience pleasure. We may feel that constant anger, due to our pain and suffering, is justifiable. In reality, feelings are neither good nor bad. They are just feelings. We can use our intellect to confront unhealthy, unrealistic beliefs.
Many of us will at one point or another be faced with a situation where we will have to either confirm or deny the beliefs we have learned from our childhood. We will have to challenge the messages that our family and our environment taught us while growing up. We will have to challenge our all-or-nothing thinking. Using rational evaluation can help us through this process.
Rational evaluation consists of asking ourselves rational questions which will either confirm or deny our beliefs. Rational evaluation is an evidence-finding exercise which will assist us in evaluating whether our thoughts are helpful or unhelpful.
The first step is to determine where the initial thought came from. You may want to ask yourself, “Who told me I have to feel/think/act this way?” Determining who the authority is may help you determine whether or not the thought is rational.
After you determine who taught you a certain belief, ask yourself “Is it possible that the person who taught me this was wrong or perhaps this person was taught incorrectly by someone else?” Since humans are fallible by nature, it is possible that the person who taught you a certain way of thinking could have made a mistake?
Next ask yourself “What will happen to me or in my life if I continue to think that I must feel/think/act this way?” This question is assisting you in determining whether or not you should challenge your irrational thinking.
Following this question, ask yourself, “How would my life be different if I did not feel/think/act this way?” and “Would it be in my best interest to feel/think/act differently?” Check out what the costs and benefits would be to feeling/thinking/acting differently to assist in determining whether a change is necessary.
Here is an example.
Suppose you think that in order to be loved you have to be perfect. Your unrealistic belief is “I have to be perfect all the time in order to be loved. If I make a mistake I am imperfect and therefore unlovable”.
First, determine where this thought came from. Who taught you that in order to be loved you have to be perfect? Let’s say it was your mother that taught you this belief. Growing up, when you made a mistake, your mother would withdrawal and only show disapproval and disappointment. She would ignore you and therefore you began to feel unlovable.
Next, ask yourself whether or not your mother could have been wrong in believing that perfection equals love. Is it possible that she was taught incorrectly about love and mistakes during her own childhood?
After you have determined whether or not your mother could be mistaken, start imagining what it would be like in your life to continue to believe this thought. What will happen to your self-esteem if you continue to believe you have to be perfect? (Maybe it will continue to plummet and you will continue to feel worthless). What will happen to your relationships with others if you continue to believe you have to be perfect to deserve love? (Perhaps you will drive others away because your need for perfection will transfer to other people). What will happen in your relationship with your mother if you continue to believe this? (Maybe you will always feel resentful and angry with her for not loving you as you are; fallible and human)
After you have imagined what it will be like to continue believing this thought, begin to imagine what your life would look like if you challenged this thought and began to think differently. What would your life be like if you allowed yourself to be loved, despite making mistakes? (Maybe you would feel closer to others and more accepted). What would it be like to alleviate yourself of the pressure to be perfect? (Perhaps you would have less anxiety and depression). Would there be any costs to changing this belief? (Maybe you would have to change the relationship you have with your mother and begin to implement boundaries). Would the benefits outweigh the costs? (Perhaps your answer is “yes”).
This process will take time and changing your thought/feelings/behaviors over night is unlikely to happen (that is another unrealistic belief!). However, over time it will begin to become easier for you to challenge unhelpful thoughts. Be patient and kind with yourself. Allow yourself the opportunity to engage in the practice of growing and working through your unpleasant, painful feelings.
Erika Krueger, M.A., is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist and an Anger Management 818 Facilitator who specializes in addictions and anger management.