When was the last time you woke up and felt like crap? You didn’t drink the night before. You slept a solid 8 hours. A clean, green breakfast smoothie is in your near future. But still: you felt stirred up and not at your best. Maybe you were anxious, fearful or sad, distracted by negative self-talk and cyclical rumination—or maybe you were just feeling lonely or super-low in energy.
Think about the last morning you woke up and felt that way—and then answer this: did you stuff those negative feelings away somewhere? And then, did you judge or blame yourself for having a hard time?
I know I have. And I know I’m not the only one. In fact, it’s a perfectly natural response to negative and uncomfortable emotions—especially when working so hard on self-improvement. Yes, the health industry is here to help. And it means well. But even if we do all the things—Sleep! Eat clean! Meditate! Move! Vibrate positivity!—it’s not realistic to feel vibrant 24-7. And there’s no shame in struggling, or experiencing uncomfortable emotions. Vibrancy varies. And that’s a good thing. Here’s why:
Feelings like anger and fear are painful (and sometimes scary) but ultimately, they’re here to help. Anger, for example, can offer incredible feedback and insight. Can you recall a time recently when you felt ticked off or resentful? Maybe you felt that way because you didn’t advocate for yourself and communicate your needs. Or perhaps resentment crept in because that deeper, wiser part of you was letting you know it needed space from a toxic person or unhealthy environment. And if you’re angry about something bigger—like the political climate? Well, that frustration could lead to something really good. Like donating to an organization that protects people whose rights are threatened or speaking up when you see injustice happening in your community.
Fear, on the other hand, most commonly shows up when we’re learning, growing, and stretching ourselves beyond our comfort zone. It’s our body telling us we’re in uncharted territory. There’s a risk of messing up. Usually when I’m overcome with fear, I take it as a sign I’m onto something big that matters. I breathe into it, I allow it to be here, and then I keep moving forward.
What you love and value is at the heart of every strong emotion. Feeling anxious about a big presentation at work? That’s because your job matters to you. Jealous of a friend? Your friend likely has qualities you desire and want to develop in yourself. If you’re a top athlete, you may fear anything that would interfere with your ability to compete at a high level.
It’s challenging to allow yourself to feel deeply into uncomfortable emotions. To say the least. Ok I’ll be honest: it’s painful, and it’s not intuitive. But trust me: that’s where the magic happens. For example, I recently experienced a super-lame (and also ridiculously common) episode of imposter syndrome. The resulting discovery of sitting with it? Integrity is one of my core values. Once I got curious and gave myself permission to feel deeper into my insecurities, I realized the unsettling thoughts served a critical purpose: To ensure that I practice my values rather than simply talking about them.
Yes, it’s challenging to allow ourselves to feel into negative emotions. But when we can welcome uncomfortable feelings into our attention and then stay present with whatever’s showing up—even when it’s hard—that’s when we build mental strength. In my late 20s, I suffered from a series of debilitating anxiety attacks. Everything came to a head one day at work when I started crying between meetings and I couldn’t stop. With my heart racing, my breathing tight and shallow, and a massive tightness in my stomach and chest, I couldn’t pull myself together. I ended up taking a medical leave from my job to recover, and I felt so ashamed. In the weeks following my medical leave, I wished my anxiety away. I was terrified of losing my composure again in a public space. Now, a few years later, I see my anxiety as a gift; a personal alarm system that also acts as a guide. And as weird as it sounds, I’m happy it’s here. I’m grateful for it. My anxiety is a part of me. It helps me stay strong, slow down, say no, and stay true to my purpose and myself.
So the next time you’re feeling less than awesome, I hope you can remember that emotional currents are totally normal. The lows and the highs both have something to offer. My ask of you is that you pay attention to your full spectrum of emotions, and get curious. Because here’s the thing: negative emotions are scary, but they’re not monsters. They are there for a reason, they have a message, and they need to be heard. In fact, they’re going to shout at you until you listen. Feeling the feelings can help you learn something—and you’re strong and resilient enough to feel all of it.
photo courtesy of Kait Hurley