Let’s imagine that you have found yourself feeling bad. Maybe you are angry, maybe you are sad, maybe you are afraid. The very worst thing you could do is tell yourself, “I shouldn’t feel like this,” and make yourself feel ashamed on top of those other feelings. That just makes it twice as hard to feel better because now you have two layers of bad feelings to go through.
If you find yourself sending shame messages to yourself, here are some things you could tell yourself instead. “It’s ok to not feel ok.” “Everyone feels bad sometimes.” “This feeling will pass.”
Why does this help? Because the feeling isn’t actually caused by the event which triggered it but by the stories we tell ourselves about it, our beliefs about ourselves and the world. Often the process of moving from event to feeling seems causally connected because it happens so fast and because we don’t need to tell ourselves a story in the moment. The event bounces off a story we’ve already told ourselves, beliefs we already have, and our mind emits a feeling in response, based on what this seems to mean for us or about us.
These unpleasant feelings then aren’t actually a bad thing but rather an opportunity for us to change. They help us uncover our ideas about the world and ourselves that need changing, that hurt us, or get in our way. So the next thing to do is use these feelings to uncover the stories that drive them.
First, name the feeling. Say to yourself, “I feel ______.” It can help to develop a working vocabulary of feeling words but you can start with just the basics like happy, sad, angry, afraid, guilty, ashamed, embarrassed, and so on.
Now, follow it up with “because I think ______” and try to fill it in with the story you must be telling yourself in order to feel how you feel. This might not be easy for you, especially at first, but this is a skill like any other and it can be built over time.
Once you have your I feel because statement, ask yourself if this belief is true and helpful. Then ask yourself what would be more true or more helpful. Once you have this new and improved belief, repeat it to yourself and imagine how you would feel if you believed it. Imagine other times when it might be useful to remember this better belief.
Over time your beliefs will change, and your feelings will change with them. And it starts not with fighting your feelings but by accepting them. And remember… it’s ok to not feel ok.