I backed the van out of the garage yesterday, unsuccessfully might I add. Even though our side mirrors can bend back and forth both ways, the extremely frigid side mirror connecting with the hard wood of the garage door frame left the plastic case around the mirror cracked and on the cold concrete floor.
It was a good nine year run where I had managed to (often) narrowly avoid crunching the mirror against our barely wide enough door frames. Yesterday I was simply distracted, not watching where I was headed, and crunch…the cold plastic gave way. I observed my traditional default response of trying to blame somebody else (this time, trying to convince myself that either my kid was talking and it was his fault, or that my husband parked differently than before, therefore setting me up for disaster). In all reality, the gross pit in my stomach was a feeling that was all mine.
I can tell you that the churning in my stomach was a mixture of anger, frustration, shame, disappointment, a hint of anxiety, and a side of defeat. It felt gross.
Some people may be tempted to call these ‘bad feelings’. But in working with a lot of clients over the past 5 years, I find myself saying again and again that feelings aren’t good or bad, they just are.
And none of these were comfortable.
But none of them were bad, either.
Blaming someone else for what happened might have helped the discomfort dissipate, and I could have avoided the sensation of slumped shoulders and texts of apology to my most gracious husband. But what I knew more than anything is that I didn’t need to fix these feelings – didn’t need to run away, distract, minimize, or pass on the blame – rather I just needed to feel them. And I couldn’t feel them all at once either, because the initial onslaught was a bit heavy, so I gave myself permission to finish my tasks without wallowing in despair.
I was out for about 45 minutes. I didn’t think about the mirror while I was driving, because naturally I was hyperfocused on not doing any more damage to our vehicle. But every time I got out of the van I took a minute to inspect the mirror to make sure the whole plastic casing wasn’t going to give way, looking at it to remind myself that the mirror still worked and calming the uncomfortable feelings down by reminding myself that it’s okay to make mistakes. That’s all this was, a gaffe, an oopsies, an (expensive) moment of not paying attention that shame will not undo. Standing in line at the post office I fired off an apology text to my husband for the now inevitable repair bill that my inattentiveness incurred. It took a bit of time, but eventually the discomfort was tolerable enough that I could engage it, and move on.
Here’s the thing though. I, perhaps like many of you, likely grew up with some measure of judgement around feelings as either good or bad. A lot of people’s lists would look something like this:
Happy = good
Excited = good
Nervous = bad
Sad = bad
Angry = really bad
Silly = this one could go both ways, depending who you’re with
Lonely = bad
Calm = good
Quiet = good
Disappointed = bad
I’m sure you could add your own. What I propose instead of good/bad modifiers for these is rather this…
Happy, excited, nervous, sad, angry, silly, lonely, calm, quiet, disappointed…etc…etc… = EVIDENCE THAT YOU ARE A FEELING PERSON. This means you are here. And alive. And having human experiences. Because being human includes a full spectrum of emotion, not just pleasant sensations.
Some of these may be more uncomfortable than others. But that doesn’t not make them bad feelings. It simply means a feeling you are having is uncomfortable to experience.
Therapy isn’t about fixing feelings, or about helping people to stop experiencing things that have been notoriously described as ‘bad’. Rather, for me at least, therapy is about helping people create enough safety within themselves that they can learn to tolerate and integrate these less comfortable emotions. Therapy isn’t about fixing, but about helping create the environment in which it’s safe to feel feelings. And for a lot of us, that means working at undoing the deeply held belief that certain emotions are bad and should be avoided.
So next time something painful or uncomfortable shows up? Perhaps shift the story from this is a bad feeling, to this sure is an uncomfortable feeling…and see what happens.