Bad feelings and riding the waves

Quite often people come to see me at Headspace Guildford and they aren’t feeling too good. Their feelings have got big and they are struggling to know how to manage them. And really, they just want to feel better. And also that’s what their parents want for them too. Now, I do know many strategies which help with big feelings. Part of my work usually involves helping people find strategies which work for them when they are struggling. But, and this is really important, just making things better isn’t always the most helpful thing you can do.

I know it sounds a bit crazy. When you’re ill, all you want to do is feel better. When you’re sad, all you want to do is feel happier. When you’re hurt all you want to do is heal. But actually, stop and think because within these analogies there is much more to it than you would think. When you get a cold, you might want to get rid of all that snot. But really the snot is the thing helping you get better (snot traps germs then the body expels the snot). And when you cut yourself, you have to put up with a scab, because the scab allows the skin underneath to peal. Pick the scab off too early and the skin might not heal properly, or it might take longer.

Feelings are like this too. Sometimes we’ve got to ride out the difficult feelings to get to a better place on the other side. This means sitting with feeling bad – not trying to make it go away, or pretend that feeling is not there, or avoid thinking about it. It means spending some time washing around in the feeling.

This is good for us sometimes, because it teaches us that feelings can be tolerated and that we can go through something tough. It also teaches us that we have the internal resources to manage dark days. Like I mentioned in the last blog (see here) life is bumpy. There are down days and up days. But if we learn to tolerate the down days we show ourselves that they are just that – bumpy, harder days, rather than a catastrophic failure. And there are lots of strategies we can use to help us tolerate (rather than ameliorate) these feelings. Mindfulness is a good one. Grounding is another one (where am I right now, what can I see, feel, hear, touch?). Breathing is a jolly good start when all else fails. Putting one foot in front of the other. And, acknowledging that today is a bad day. Noticing it’s difficult without blaming yourself for having a bad day. We all have them. We all struggle. We don’t really talk about it enough but we all do. So have faith that you can ride out this wave without it knocking you down. All you have to do is keep standing.

Importantly this isn’t the same as just wallowing in the feeling. Berating ourselves for how bad we feel, or getting suck in to linking today’s bad day with all the other ones, blaming ourselves for being a failure, letting our brain list our woes. These things don’t help us. Sometimes we do really need to pick ourselves up and shake ourselves off and carry on despite a bad feeling. Because there is a danger that otherwise we are so sunk by the feeling we spiral out of control. But in fact, what I’m talking about helps us not to spiral. Recognising bad feelings for what they are – bad feelings, not the end of everything, takes away some of their power.

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