In Honor of Mental Health Month, Let's Get Real About How We Feel
May 1, 2018
Imagine trying with all your might to control the weather, determined that every day will be sunny.
Some days, your magic powers may seem to work. You put on your aviators and head outside with a smile, thinking, “Yes, this is right.”
But most days? It’s not that simple. Rain hangs around, morning fog becomes dense before burning off, wind brings a rush to everything.
Instead of accepting the weather—and maybe grabbing that umbrella—all you can do is walk around thinking: “Why isn’t it sunny?” And, instead of talking with others about the rain, you pretend it’s sunny when it’s actually pouring.
Pretty frustrating to imagine, right? To experience something—something we all can feel and something that’s outside of our control—but to resist accepting it.
Our emotions are like the weather—unpredictable, ranging from turbulent to calm, and sometimes lingering but always changing.
But unlike the weather, we put pressure on ourselves to be happy all the time—to feel like a sunny day, 24/7—and panic when we’re not. We try to gloss over feeling frustrated, cover up our bubbling anxiety with an enthusiastic “I’m doing great!,” or just ignore that heavy sadness we can’t quite seem to shake.
We tend to think this method keeps us mentally healthy, but research shows it actually does the opposite. That’s why, here at Shine, we’re devoting May, Mental Health Awareness month, to helping you embrace your full range of emotions in the name of better mental health.
Less “get happy,” more “get comfy with all your feelings.” We’re dubbing this month, and this movement, All the Feels—and it’s time we embraced them.
The Feels Beyond ‘Happy’
Blame it on the happiness industry, the way we’re often raised to dismiss negative emotions, or just the sharp contrast between sweet, sweet joy and all other feels—whatever the reason, happiness long ago won the yearbook superlative of “Best Emotion Ever.” But joy is only one of 27 unique emotional categories identified by researchers.
“It’s almost as if we’re brainwashed to think that happiness is the only emotion we should be allowing ourselves to experience,” says Anna Rowley, Ph.D., a psychologist and performance consultant.
A range of emotions—including feelings like fear, anger, sadness, and anxiety—are associated with being healthy, Rowley says. But we do our best to resist negative feelings and avoid talking about them. What we stand to lose when we do this: a lot.
“This relentless drumbeat to constantly be happy actually makes us less connected and more isolated than if we truly embraced all the emotions that are part of being human,” Rowley says.
And the more we dismiss any non-happy feels, the more we set ourselves up to experience them. A recent study from University of California, Berkeley showed that accepting our negative emotions actually helps us better defuse them and leads to fewer negative emotions over time, leading to better overall psychological health.
“How we approach our own negative emotional reactions is really important for our overall wellbeing,” study lead author Brett Ford, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Toronto, told Berkeley News. “People who accept these emotions without judging or trying to change them are able to cope with their stress more successfully.”
But how do we accept our negative emotions? It’s not something we know intuitively, and our preoccupation with happiness doesn’t prepare us for the task. “People are often frightened of emotions because we don’t understand how to read them,” Rowley says.
Here, Rowley walks us through sitting with and accepting our feelings. Consider this your umbrella for the next time rain (or fog or a blizzard) rolls in:
1. Greet the Feeling
Rowley favors the RAIN technique when dealing with undesirable feelings. It stands for:
●︎ Recognize: Notice the feeling
●︎ Allow: Don’t fight the feeling
●︎ Investigate: Get curious about the feeling
●︎ Non-Identification: Separate yourself from the feeling
The first thing to do when a strong feeling pops up? Simply notice it. Try to sit back and just see the feeling.
To fully acknowledge it, Rowley recommends saying to yourself: “I notice I’m feeling (blank),” filling in the blank with however you’re feeling. Know that feeling—whatever it is—is human, and trust that opening yourself up to it will strengthen your emotional resilience.
“You can’t engage with life if the only time you engage is when you’re happy,” Rowley says. “The time to engage is when you’re sad or frustrated or angry.”
2. Let the Feeling Do Its Annoying Feeling Thing
The second part of RAIN: Don’t fight the feeling. As the Berkeley study showed, trying to change our negative feelings or judging them actually does more harm than good. Acceptance is the best way to make a positive change.
Rowley, who did not work on the Berkeley study, agrees. She likes to imagine her difficult emotions as a small pet—an obnoxious one, but one she can deal with.
3. Get Curious
Once you recognize and accept your mood, it’s time to get out your magnifying glass and take a closer look. But instead of resorting to the typical panic-inducing questions (ex. “What does this feeling say about my entire life up to this point and ahead of me?!”), get creative with your investigation.
Some questions Rowley suggests:
●︎ Where do I feel this in my body?
●︎ Is it moving or changing?
●︎ Does it have a color?
●︎ Does it have a shape?
●︎ Does it have a texture?
●︎ Does it have a name?
“My miserable persona is called Netty,” Rowley says. “When Netty comes to visit, it’s like, ‘Hey, you can hang around briefly, but then you have to go.’”
Even though it might feel silly, investigating your feeling in an abstract way helps you detach and isolate the emotion. “Once you start to think about the emotion as someplace in your body, a shape, or a color, you’re controlling it—you’re not becoming it,” she says.
Rowley says this type of separation is something most of us struggle with. We assume that feeling something means we are something—angry, sad, frustrated. But we have a choice in the matter.
4. Watch Your Feelings From a Distance
The final phase of RAIN is called “non-identification.” What it means: uncoupling who you are from how you feel in a given moment. “It’s thinking, ‘OK, this isn’t going to last long—emotions don’t generally. I’m just going to let it pass through,’” Rowley says.
It’s easier said than done, though. One tactic that can help: creating an emotional weather report. (Stay with me, here.) Try describing your emotions like a meteorologist standing in front of a map of, well, yourself. If you’re feeling sadness creep in, the report might be: “It’s feeling kind of drizzly and some clouds are rolling in.” Or, if anxiety is firing up: “It feels like the winds picked up, and things are getting whipped around.”
“If an emotion is giving you the weather report that ‘thunder clouds are rolling in,’ ask yourself, ‘Why are they rolling in?’” Rowley says. “Is it telling me something vital about my environment? Or, is it me just responding to a situation that I can actually manage?’”
5. Don’t Be Afraid to Talk Feels
“Feelings often change when you express them,” Rowley says. “When we talk about something we’re worried about or frightened about and someone hears us, the power of the fear is often just checked and it dissipates quickly.”
We often think talking about negative emotions will strain a relationship (cue the “Debbie Downer” label), but Rowley says it can actually strengthen our connection with other people.
“Emotions are things that not only can you talk about, but it deepens the relationship between you and the people that you care about,” Rowley says. “There’s something powerful in being able to talk honestly about all our emotions—I mean, can you imagine what kind of world it would be?”
Our thinking: The world would be a much more emotionally accepting, supportive, and mentally healthy place.
The next time your “sunny day” turns a little cloudy, remember the power in embracing your feels—all the feels.
If you’re struggling with your emotions, know there are professionals who can help. You can find support through the National Alliance on Mental Illness, or text Crisis Text Line directly at 741741—it’s available 24/7, it’s confidential, and it’s free.
Read next: Why Crying At Work Won’t Destroy Your Career