Accept, Tolerate, Express: A Guide to Normalizing and Nurturing Our Emotions
“Let’s talk about feelings”… Make you cringe a little? It’s not always easy talking about feelings, even to your therapist. I often hear from my clients their resistance and hesitancy to explore emotions because they have been given messages throughout their lifetime that they “should not feel” a certain way, or that they should “stop crying and get over it”. And for many children, showing emotions is either discouraged or invalidated by their parents, making for a very unsafe environment to express very natural thoughts and feelings.
What happens all too often is that when we are shamed for expressing feelings and emotions we actually end up losing touch with them altogether. So not only is it difficult to talk about emotions because of the nature of the vulnerability associated with it, but also it is literally difficult to come up with words to verbalize this person feels.
This is why I came up with an approach to help people get back in touch with their emotional self. Therefore, a lot of my work focuses on working with individuals to re-learn how to get back in touch with their actual emotions, learn how to tolerate them, and express them in adaptive ways.
So let’s get to it.
Accept– Becoming comfortable with acknowledging the emotions that are present within you and validating them.
This is actually a much more challenging concept than it sounds. All around us we are receiving messages that we should be happy and cheerful and pleasant and polite. Some days though, that might be difficult. And yet it is hard to be genuine on those days.
Has anybody ever walked past you in and the hallway and asked how your day was going? And you’re actually having a terrible day but you say with a smile, “Great!” Or if someone asks you, “Hey how are you today?” You respond with a quick “just fine, how are you?” and keep on walking. Why is that?
The first step is to resist the temptation to push away the emotions that are bubbling up within you. They are most likely very appropriate given what is happened in your life or on that given day, and we need to be able to accept them. Which brings me to my next point…
Tolerate– The lesson in learning how to not only accept the emotions that are bubbling up within you but also to sit with them, get to know them, and become curious about them instead of pushing them away.
Okay so we have been practicing our willingness to accept the feelings that we have, now we have to learn how to tolerate them. Have you ever found yourself saying silently something along the lines of, “not today, I don’t have time to be upset”, or “I really don’t like the way (this particular emotion) _______ feels so I’m just going to fake it today”.
And this actually brings up a good point. It would be a stretch to say that someone would enjoy feeling depressed or angry or frustrated or anxious. Albeit, it is an important tool to have- to be able to sit with the emotions that we have. To sit there still in a quiet place, almost meditative. Allowing yourself to feel “said emotion”. Why do we push these emotions away?
We cannot keep avoiding the unpleasant. We have to recognize why it is alive within us in that moment and embrace it and validate it and accept it and tolerate it. What happens when we don’t do these things is that we attempt to sweep it under the rug or pretend that it’s not there.
I cannot emphasize this enough–we have a wide variety of emotions, they all serve the purpose of helping tell us about our place in our environment. Additionally, the more we push something away that is natural, the more it will come back to us a version stronger and more intrusive. And it may demonstrate itself in different ways as well in the form of:
-isolation or codependency
-depression and anxiety
…the list goes on.
Express– Taking the emotions and getting them out of our brains and bodies in healthy and adaptable ways.
After we learn how to accept the emotions within us and practice tolerating them then we move to the final step of learning how to appropriately express our emotions. If you are the type of individual who tends to “bottle things up” then you know quite well how pent-up emotions can express themselves. Usually in maladaptive and unhealthy ways.
The first two steps of this process actually are precursors to helping us express feelings in positive ways, because all of a sudden our emotions have become something we can recognize as normal and be seen and heard. The act of just doing these things can help lend to an easier transaction to expressing emotions. Like I mentioned before, most everybody does not like to sit there and feel and focus on these difficult emotions. That’s where this last step comes in handy.
It’s not healthy to sit around and ruminate about these emotions. So there’s a fine balance between allowing them to come in and recognizing them, and letting the difficult emotions and not take over. I do a lot of individual work with my clients on this one, as it has to be a very individualized plan. I like to focus on four core pillars. Learning how to express our emotions in these ways:
Some people enjoy things like physical exercise, being out in nature, or gardening. Some individuals tend to express their emotions spiritually, relying on a higher power for prayer to get them through a tough time. So it’s important to know what aspects are important to you and which of these pillars comes naturally to you. In addition, strengthening all four core pillars in ways that are important and meaningful to you actually help to naturally decrease symptoms of anxiety and depression on its own.
In summary, I want to encourage each and everyone of you to begin recognizing when you feel uncomfortable with difficult emotions. Instead of pushing them out or not giving them the attention that they deserve, let them in. See them, hear them and validate them.
Acknowledge why they’re there. Then when it is time, express them and get them out in a healthy and positive way. In such a way that it becomes advantageous to you. To help you grow and understand your needs and emotions on a much deeper an effective level.
Despite what society says and despite what you may have heard throughout childhood, emotions are normal. Emotions are good. Emotions are healthy– yes even the uncomfortable ones. They help us learn about ourselves, our connections to our world and are meant to be a part of our lives.
I would love to hear your thoughts!
Katie Porter, M.A., LPC, PLLC, CFNC, EMDR Trained