For most of my life, I was a fugitive from my feelings.
Psychologists suggest that we are driven by two connected motivations: to feel pleasure and avoid pain. Most of us devote more energy to the latter than the former.
Instead of being proactive and making choices for our happiness, we react to things that happen in our lives and fight or flee to minimize our pain.
Instead of deciding to end an unhealthy relationship and open up to a better one, we may stay and either avoid confrontation or initiate one to feel a sense of control. Instead of leaving a horrible job to find one we love, we may stay and complain about it all the time, trying to minimize the pain of accepting the situation as real—and enduring until we change it.
From a very young age, I felt overwhelmed by pain. As a pre-teen, I ate my feelings. As a teen, I starved them away. In college, I drank and smoked them numb. And in my twenties, I felt and cried my eyes red and raw.
I sobbed. I wailed. I shook and convulsed. And I wished I’d never chosen to feel them, but rather kept pushing them down, pretending everything was fine.
Except when I did that, they didn’t just go away—they compounded on top each other and built up until eventually I exploded, with no idea why I felt so bad.
One time when I was seventeen, I couldn’t open a jar of jelly. After ten minutes of twisting, banging, and fighting, I finally threw it at a wall and broke down.
You may think that was a sure sign I had emotional problems and assume there was some pill to help anesthetize that sadness.
That’s what a lot of people thought. But the reality was a lot simpler: I’d never dealt with my feelings from events large and small, and eventually they dealt with me.
As unpleasant as it may sound, I needed to learn how to feel bad, but first I needed to understand why I felt bad so often. It’s a whole lot easier to deal with pain when it’s not the default feeling.
This, I’ve learned, comes down to three steps:
Developing emotional intelligence
Learning to sit with negative feelings
Creating situations for positive feelings
Researchers originated this idea as the missing link in terms of success and effectiveness in life. It didn’t seem to make sense why people with high IQs and superior reasoning, verbal, and math skills could still struggle in social and professional situations.
If you have a high EIQ, you likely regulate your emotions well; handle uncertainties and difficulties without excessive panic, stress, and fear; and avoid overreacting to situations before knowing the full details.
If you have a low EIQ, you might be oversensitive to other people’s feelings in response to you, obsess about problems until you find a concrete solution, and frequently feel a tsunami of emotions that you can’t attribute to a specific life event. Or in other words, you may feel bad far more often than you feel good.
Some Steps to Improve Your Emotional Intelligence
1. Understand what emotional intelligence looks like.
Psychologist Daniel Goleman identified five elements to EI: self-awareness, self-regulation, motivation, empathy, and social skills. This means you understand what’s going on in your head and heart; you don’t make hasty decisions on impulse; you can motivate yourself to delay gratification; you listen to, understand, and relate to other people well; and you’re able to focus on other people.
You can read more about these ideas in Goleman’s book Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More than IQ.
2. Use meditation to regulate emotions.
It’s infinitely easier to deal with emotions as they arise if you’ve already done a little work to create a calm inner space. If you’re new to meditation, you may want to try one of these simple ways to make meditation easy and fun.
3. Take an honest look at your reactions.
Do you frequently jump to conclusions without knowing all the facts? Do you need other people’s approval to feel comfortable in your own skin? Do you assume you know what other people feel and take responsibility for that? Do you freak out over stressful situations, blaming other people, getting hard on yourself, and panicking over possible consequences?
4. Practice observing your feelings and taking responsibility for them.
It’s not always easy to understand a feeling when it happens, especially if you think you shouldn’t feel it, but forget about should. Instead, try to pinpoint exactly what you feel—scared, frustrated, worried, ashamed, agitated, angry—and then pinpoint what might be the cause. Reserve all judgment.
Simply find the cause and effect, i.e.: your employer seemed unhappy with your work, so now you feel stressed, or your significant other expressed dissatisfaction, so now you feel scared. Anytime you feel something uncomfortable that you’d rather avoid, put a magnifying glass on it.
Once you know what you feel, you can now challenge both the cause and the effect.
You can ask yourself whether or not you’re overreacting to the event or worrying to find a sense of control. And then you can accept that there is an alternative—you can choose to interpret the situation a different way, soothe yourself, and then feel something different. No one else causes our feelings. Only we can choose and change them.
Learn to Sit with Negative Feelings
Even if you reframe a situation to see things differently, there will be times when you still feel something that seems negative. While not every situation requires panic, sometimes our feelings are appropriate for the events going on in our lives.
We are allowed to feel whatever we need to feel. If we lose someone, we’re allowed to hurt. If we hurt someone, we’re allowed to feel guilty. If we make a mistake, we’re allowed to feel regretful. Positive thinking can be a powerful tool for happiness, but it’s more detrimental than helpful if we use it to avoid dealing with life.
Pain is part of life, and we can’t avoid it by resisting it. We can only minimize it by accepting it and dealing with it well.
That means feeling the pain and knowing it will pass. No feeling lasts forever. It means sitting in the discomfort and waiting before acting. There will come a time when you feel healed and empowered.
I don’t regret much in life, but in retrospect, some of the most damaging decisions I have made have resulted from me feeling the need to do something with my emotions. I’d feel angry and want to hurt someone. Or I’d feel ashamed and want to hurt myself.
Our power comes from realizing we don’t need to act on pain; and if we need to diffuse it, we can channel it into something healthy and productive, like writing, painting, or doing something physical.
Pain is sometimes an indication we need to set boundaries, learn to say no more often, or take better care of ourselves. But sometimes it just means that it’s human to hurt, and we need to let ourselves go through it.
Create Situations for Positive Feelings
This is the last part of the puzzle. As I mentioned before, we tend to be more reactive than active, but that’s a decision to let the outside world dictate how we feel.
We don’t need to sit around waiting for other people to evoke our feelings. Instead, we can take responsibility to create our own inner world.
We can identify what we want to say yes to in life and choose that before struggling with whether or not to say no to someone else. If you love dancing, take a class. If your greatest passion is writing, start a blog. If you daydream about being a musician, start recording.
Don’t worry about where it’s leading. Do it just because you love it. For me, this is theater. I performed all growing up, and yet I hardly ever did in my twenties. There was always an excuse—I was too busy or I couldn’t find an audition.
Last year I defied those beliefs and auditioned for Gypsy in San Mateo. I didn’t get cast, likely because I somehow developed two left feet after nearly a decade without moving to music, but I remembered how much I love acting. And I felt a renewed sense of confidence when the director pulled me aside and said I should audition for the next show because my scene was powerful.
I need more of that. We all need more of that. We need to do the things we love.
Negative feelings are only negative if they’re excessive and enduring. We won’t hurt ourselves into eternal misery if we let ourselves feel what we need to feel.
Still, we don’t have to feel bad nearly as often as we think.
If we choose to foster a sense of inner peace, challenge our perceptions and interpretations when our emotions could use some schooling, and learn to take responsibility for our joy, we can not only minimize pain; we can choose to be a source of pleasure, for ourselves and the people around us.