Caring for yourself

Slow down and feel your feelings: Lean into the Suck

5 minutes

None of us want to be sad, angry, or scared. But research shows that letting yourself fully experience your emotions can help you start to heal.

We all have experiences that leave us feeling devastated and overwhelmed. In these moments, “Go ahead and feel awful” isn’t generally considered good advice.

In fact, you’ve probably got people encouraging you to do the opposite, saying things like, “Put it out of your mind,” “Don’t dwell on it,” or “Keep a stiff upper lip.” You may even be telling yourself those same things. If so, you should stop.

It’s natural to want to deal with sadness and get rid of painful thoughts and feelings as quickly as possible. But research tells us that avoidance and denial actually put you on a slower track to moving forward.1 When you avoid painful thoughts and feelings, they rebound with more intensity than before you tried to push them away. Over time, people who don’t slow down to feel what they feel end up feeling more sad and anxious than those who don’t.2

It might seem counterintuitive, but to move forward, you’ve got to do the exact thing you don’t want to do. You’ve got to lean into the suck.

  • Tip #1
    Let your feelings be

    People push hard feelings away for many reasons. On top of not wanting to feel awful (no one does!), you might be thinking:

    • “I can’t afford to break down, I have to stay productive.”
    • “I ought to feel better by now.”
    • “I have to stay strong for other people”
    • “I don’t want my feelings to make people uncomfortable.”
    Emotions can be painful, messy, and inconvenient. But there are no “wrong” emotions. Whatever you’re feeling, it’s telling you something important about what you want, need, and value. Trying to control or deny this gets in the way of making sense of your experiences. It also makes it more likely that your emotions will erupt in unhelpful ways.

  • How to do it

    Giving yourself permission to feel your feelings can look like:

    • Venting to a friend about how hard things have been.
    • Naming your emotions and acknowledging their power.
    • Accepting that you can’t always control when a hard feeling comes up. If you need to turn off your Zoom camera or cry in the bathroom at work, so be it.

  • Tip #2
    Turn toward, not away

    Instead of trying to push away your feelings, get relief by turning toward something else.

    • When pain feels all-encompassing, broaden your lens. Noticing everything you can see, hear, smell, taste, and touch makes pain part of your experience, rather than your whole experience.
    • Focus on self-soothing. Breathe. Stretch. Take a hot bath or shower. Imagine being in your favorite place. Get a hug or give yourself one. Snuggle with a pet. Listen to music.
    • If a wave of emotion feels overwhelming, turn toward something that will keep your brain busy while the wave passes. Watch a show, call a friend, or do a hobby. If those things aren’t possible, you can distract yourself by saying the alphabet backward or counting all of the blue things you can see.

  • Tip #3
    Don’t hide your emotions from others

    Pretending to be fine is emotionally and physically draining at a time you probably don’t have any energy to spare. Hiding your feelings can also keep you from getting the support you need. Research shows that friends and family are more likely to offer help when they have a window into your feelings.3

  • How to do it
    • Give yourself permission to be a bit messy. Real emotions are raw and can pop up at inconvenient times. The people who love you will want to support you, not judge you. Remember, you’re not a burden—you’re a human being.
    • Everyone has a different comfort level with sharing emotions. You get to choose the level and style that is right for you, whether that’s crying with a group of friends or texting one person you trust.
    • Sharing your pain can make the suckiness start to feel a bit lighter or more manageable. People who want to help often don’t know how to open the door to hard conversations. When you’re ready, here are some ways you can open up and ask for help.

Leaning into the suck is like flowing with a thrashing wave instead of fighting against it. The wave is still powerful, but if you let yourself accept your feelings, that wave won’t push you around quite so roughly.

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