Feeling Feelings Without Doing Things

There’s an idea that I’ve seen floating around a lot lately that when you feel something, the logical thing to do is act on it. I think this is an unspoken assumption that most people have. When you’re angry you either bottle it up or you act on it. There are no other options. And oddly enough acting on it is generally assumed to be a big, expansive action: acting on your anger isn’t going for a run to let off some steam, it’s yelling or hitting something or breaking something or cutting ties with someone.

And there’s this idea that if you don’t act out whatever your emotion is telling you to do, completely and fully, then you’re repressing your emotions, or you’re behaving dishonestly in some way, or that it will eventually all burst out of you in some gigantic flood of ARG. If you don’t let it all out then you at least need to fix whatever is causing the emotions, because emotions are a problem, ya know? So the healthy thing to do is to Logically Understand The Problem and then take Appropriate Action.

There’s something I’ve been practicing lately though. It’s a thing where I have a feeling and then I don’t do anything about it. The feeling keeps feeling, and that’s fine. Sometimes I distract myself a bit or just continue about my life. Sometimes (if it’s one of those really big emotions) I just sit and feel it for a while. This is not always a pleasant thing. Emotions often exist as a motivation for action, and it can be hard to resist that, but it doesn’t actually cause any harm. It’s just a little uncomfortable and sometimes distressing.

So what happens when I just let my emotions happen and choose to do nothing about them? Well most of the time nothing. There is no catastrophic consequence. They happen, and they fade. And sometimes there are lingering bits to it, and I have to continue to sit with it for quite some time, but eventually it does fade.

Now there is a huge caveat to this and that’s that if something is hurting you or is an actual problem and you think that your emotions are accurately telling you “something needs to change here” then yes, please alert someone to the situation and make that change. But for the emotions that are just there, like a crush or like some minor annoyance or like some random depression feels, in which there is no necessary action, it will fade.

And despite what you may think, that’s actually totally ok. The amazing thing about being an adult is that you can have an emotion and still use other tools to determine your course of action. You can decide that you don’t want to hold on to this emotion or that it’s just not that important.

One of the hardest places to do this is in romantic or positive feelings. When we feel an attraction or a desire, holy hell is it hard to not do anything about it. It’s like not eating that delicious slice of cake that’s sitting right in front of us. And yet we know that our desire for cake is not always the most important thing in the world and sometimes we don’t eat cake. Same thing with desiring a person or an outcome or an action.

For many people it’s a foreign concept not to pursue what you want, especially in the romantic sphere. Who wouldn’t want to get with the person they’re interested in? Well lots of people. Someone might be fun to hang out with but have radically different values from yours, or you might be moving away soon, or maybe you just prefer flirting. There’s all kinds of reasons you might prefer not to act on a desire. And so learning to feel that feeling, enjoy the goodness of that feeling, and not demand an action or a result from yourself can lead to a whole lot less angst.

I’ve always hated the advice of just “sitting with a feeling”, especially for mental illness related feelings. People always told me that they would go away eventually, but for me the eventually was years. Some of the really big emotions can’t just be sat with. But part of the reason for this is our societal obsession with seeing every emotion as a problem that requires a solution. So maybe we should start practicing with smaller things. Feel a feeling but don’t do a thing. It doesn’t have to be huge, but try letting go of the desire to talk to that one person, or notice that you have a flutter of anxiety about something but keep on with your day anyway, or get annoyed at your computer and don’t yell at it.

Just an experiment, but you might find that it leaves you with a lot more space to decide what you actually want to do.

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