The Benefits of Listening to our Discomfort

Like you, I have an affinity for feeling happy. I am certainly better company when I am feeling happy, as I tend to wear my emotions on my sleeve despite my best efforts.

Also like you, I have my preferred methods of dealing with unpleasant emotions that attempt to usurp my positive attitude. Many of us were trained from a young age that when we feel uncomfortable emotions, we should try to get back to feeling happy by avoiding these feelings, burying them, or simply pretending they are not there. You know, put on a happy face. 

Our aversion to uncomfortable emotions is as normal and understandable as having a dislike for a backache. No one hopes to have more "achy back" in their life.  However, when our muscles ache, our body is telling us something is going on and we need to listen and attend to our bodies. We may need to give our bodies a rest, make changes to our lifestyle or go see a physician. When we experience physical pain, our bodies are providing us with information about the state of our body so we can address issues and stay healthy. When emotional aches try to come into awareness, it can be difficult to treat this as information simply because we usually aren't very good at making room and listening to uncomfortable emotions.

Our tendency to avoid negative emotions leaves us profoundly disconnected from what is happening in our lives and relationships. 

I propose that we start treating our emotions as conduits of information. We will always have a preference for feeling happy over feeling an uncomfortable emotion such as sadness, fear, anxiety, jealousy and the like. However, these have a vital role to play in our lives. When we feel some uncomfortable emotion, it is information that needs to be given attention and an appropriate response.

Here's where we can start:

  • Take a deep breathe and get curious about your emotions. Start paying attention to when you feel upset, or when you start to (sometimes automatically) utilize your preferred method of dealing with uncomfortable emotions. (Side note: Coping skills are great, and we all need them! However, if we are not accustomed to listening to our uncomfortable emotions, we may miss the information they are trying to communicate to us.)
  • Give extra attention to emotions that are recurring or chronic. Whether you are feeling discontent in your profession, sad about an interaction, or angry about a perceived inequality. Take the time to think through what's contributing to your emotional reaction, and how you can thoughtful respond or begin making changes. 
  • When someone else comes to you upset, resist the urge to try to fix their problem or make them happy again. At least at first. We are usually as uncomfortable with other people's negative emotions as we are with our own.  When someone we care for is sad or disappointed, it is our natural response to want to make those feelings disappear. However, focus on hearing them out and validating their distress. You can say something as simple as "Wow, I can see how hard/upsetting/scary/difficult this is for you." I am constantly amazed by how relieved people can feel just from feeling heard.

The appropriate responses to our discomfort will vary greatly, in the same way that our physical aches and pains require various responses. At times, we need to take actions to address issues, and other times our discomfort is simply a normal part of growth and development. So let's take a deep breath, and allow ourselves to listen to those uncomfortable thoughts and feelings that linger in the outskirts of our awareness. They have information that will benefit our lives.