Permission to Feel (and why it is so very good for your health)
Being a whole human involves allowing yourself to feel the full spectrum of human emotion. In other words, allowing all emotions a seat at the table.
But we aren’t so great at allowing emotions a seat at the table. At least not all of them. Instead we resist, avoid, react to and judge our emotions. And we even make up really dramatic storylines about them.
In today’s post, I really want to dive into this topic of permission to feel emotion and why it is so very good for your health.
Resisting emotion is a lot like trying to hold a beach ball underwater: you might be successful in that endeavor for a little bit. But eventually, that ball is going to pop out from underneath you and potentially hit you in the face (or someone nearby).
Another image that comes to mind is a scene in the movie Unbroken, about a former Olympic track star who survived a plane crash, spent 47 days drifting on a raft and then survived more than two and a half years as a prisoner of war in three different Japanese camps during WW2. In that particular scene, he’s holding a plank over his head for an insane amount of time as a form of torture. It’s really remarkable the endurance that this man has, especially given all that he’s been through.
But of course, we can’t hold the plank over our head forever. There comes a point when the body breaks down.
And this is how I think of resisting emotion: we can do it but it’s incredibly taxing, specifically to our nervous system which in turn innervates every system in the human body. This means when our nervous system is dysregulated our immune function suffers, our digestion suffers, our hormones suffer, etc.
Emotion needs motion. We have to allow emotion to move through us. Otherwise, we’re creating a tremendous amount of unnecessary work that will actually harm us rather than help us.
Avoiding emotion means distracting yourself from the truth of our life. It looks like pouring a glass of wine to avoid feeling stressed or eating when you’re not hungry because you’re feeling lonely.
It also looks like avoiding discomfort. When we avoid discomfort, we don’t develop new skills. We don’t do the work that we are calling ourselves to do, and we move in the opposite direction that we intended to go.
Here is a clear example. I had a client who was committed to moving her body more regularly. She had gone as far as to buy a gym membership. She had packed a gym bag, had her gym clothes ready… But when the time came for her to lean into the discomfort of following through on that promise that she made to herself, she decided to paint the bathroom instead.
A lot of people will read this and think: “Well, painting your bathroom is a lot of work.” It is, and there is a level of discomfort. But that level of discomfort clearly felt better to her than actually going to the gym. So avoiding emotion can look like doing more work, rather than going for the walk that you promised yourself that you would go on.
Improving health requires that we lean into discomfort and pursue it on purpose. It is uncomfortable to do anything that is not a part of your regular routine or that you don’t feel super capable in. But not doing it can cause a lot of detriment to our health, because we aren’t doing the things that will move our health to higher ground.
Reacting to emotion
Reacting to an emotion looks like taking action immediately, just because you feel something. Often that action is very out of alignment with who you want to be in the world, because you don’t pause to consider how you want to respond. And often, of course, this is instigated by some kind of trigger.
I always think of arguments with my husband. We’ve been together for many years, so it’s really easy for us to have the same types of arguments and react in the exact same way that we always have. Which is so unhelpful. All that does is keep us in this spin cycle of not being able to grow and evolve as a couple.
So when you feel really emotionally charged, taking a moment to consider the message the emotion has for you, and how you want to respond to that message, is a really powerful practice.
We massively dive into this work inside my Rumble & Rise community. We start from the perspective that most of your emotional charge is coming from the way you perceive your life and other people, as well as the way you choose to think about those things.
Examine your emotions
You have to really be willing to examine the emotion that you’re feeling, what might be under it, and how you’re creating it. For example, when anger shows up, I’m willing to look at the message that it has for me. What’s underneath it is actually something else. It’s usually insecurity, uncertainty, lack of feeling safe… So I react with anger because I feel more protected.
It has become clear to me that when self-doubt shows up it reflects the quality of my thinking, in that I’m focusing on my weaknesses rather than my strengths. But if I spend 90 seconds focusing on why I can figure this out, why I’m perfectly capable, and reminding myself of all the resources I have at my disposal, I don’t feel self-doubt. I feel something quite different.
I like to remind my students and myself that emotions are indicators, not dictators. If you are very reactive to emotion all the time, you are allowing it to dictate your life. But if you start to build a practice of pausing when emotions show up and considering them for a moment, they can be amazing lenses to look through in terms of how you’re choosing to think about your life.
This is something to consider: Do you react to emotion? Are you allowing emotion to govern your life? And if so, I just want to offer you that you don’t have to live that way.
There is kind of this pervading message in our culture that we should be happy all the time. But the truth is that’s not really the human experience. The human experience is that we feel all the emotions throughout our life. We feel happiness and optimism and joy. And we also feel disappointment and frustration and sadness.
When we really hyper focus on labelling emotions good and bad, and then combine that with living at a time when pleasure is at every corner, you can see how things would go horribly wrong with our health, right? We say things to ourselves like “this shouldn’t be happening”, “I should be happy”, “I should be grateful”, “I should [fill in the blank]”.
If we chase this idea that we should feel good all of the time, we do things consistently that compounded over time are massively detrimental to our health. So if every time you feel stressed you drink or eat to feel something better than stress, that does not bode well for your physiology.
If you dropped that idea that you are supposed to be happy all of the time, how might that change your relationship to certain things like food and alcohol?
Creating dramatic storylines about our emotions
This also ties with feeling entitled to be happy all the time. If we’re feeling frustrated, a little self-doubt or disappointed, it doesn’t end there.
What we start doing when we feel anything but happy is we have more thoughts about the bad emotions that make us feel even worse: We feel guilty about our guilt. We feel disappointed about our disappointment. We feel angry about our anger. And then we avoid emotion by consuming things that are not good for us, we judge emotion, we react to it…
So when you feel really emotionally charged, consider what you’re making your emotions mean. Why is it a problem for you that this emotion has come knocking? Because when you make any emotion a problem, this is going to lead to more avoiding, more resisting, more reacting, all of which breaks down your health.
Why do we manage emotions poorly?
If trying to manage our emotion in these ways is not good for us, why do we keep doing it? It really boils down to two things.
1. We fear certain emotions
“I never want to feel lonely.”
“I never want to feel incapable.”
I don’t know what the thing is that you fear, but I guarantee there are emotions that you would probably prefer to never feel again in your lifetime.
Think about why you fear emotion: It’s because of what you make it mean. “Anger is bad”, “I shouldn’t feel frustrated”, “I should never feel self-doubt”… Those thoughts are what make you fear it.
2. We have a habit of not feeling emotions
I didn’t learn about regulating emotion or managing emotion in healthy ways until I was in my late 30s. I also work with women every day who are in their 40s, 50s, 60s and beyond, who haven’t learned how to regulate their own emotional landscape.
I feel like there’s so much grace in reminding ourselves that all of the behavior that we don’t love is really just a habit. It’s just a practice. And I find so much relief in that truth, because it means that if we start practicing something else, we can change.
How to give yourself permission to feel
Yes, life can be hard. But we make it so much harder than it needs to be when we do not give ourselves permission to feel emotion. The cost of that to our health is that we jack up our nervous system, which jacks up our chemistry. We avoid discomfort and we suffer unnecessarily.
I want to invite you, moving forward, to start thinking of your emotions as a treasure trove. Your emotional landscape is giving you so much insight about who you’re choosing to be in the world, how you’re choosing to think and what you’re choosing to practice. And that is awesome information, even if you don’t like it, because you can’t change without self-awareness.
When you start to get wildly curious about your emotions, this gives you the opportunity to make a different decision.
But how do you actually grant yourself permission to feel so you can improve your health?
1. Observe yourself
The very first thing I teach people is the power of observation, which basically means self-awareness. I have an entire module on this inside The Consistency Code, which all of my Rumble & Rise members get access to.
When we first start talking about emotional management and agility, a lot of my clients have trouble naming emotions. Their emotional vocabulary is very tiny: they either feel happy or sad.
But there is a wide range of human emotions. You can start to observe yourself simply by practicing naming emotions and noticing them. When you start learning about how different emotions feel in your body, and you become better at naming them and noticing them, you’re in a much better position to process them in a way that keeps you in integrity with yourself.
So how does anger for you differ from grief? How does sadness differ from disappointment? How do those emotions show up differently in your body? Where do you feel it specifically? How does it move through your body?
And of course, the tricky part here is when we observe, we love to judge. This is not a practice of judging; it’s a practice of watching. Naming and noticing, that simple. We have to keep the judgment out of it; otherwise it turns into something very different.
2. Give yourself permission to lean in
There are certain emotions in your life that you are probably very unwilling to feel. You have to start practicing allowing the emotion to process.
This looks like getting curious about your resistance. And all resistance is, is an unwillingness to feel, so rather than allow emotion, you retreat from it.
What do you do when that emotion shows up? Do you drink? Do you eat? Do you busy yourself with work? Do you pick a fight with your spouse? What are the emotions that you have a lot of resistance to?
I’ve taught movement for over 20 years in my career. And one of the things I always used to use as a teaching strategy to get a client to understand a movement better, is I would ask them to do it in the opposite way that I ultimately wanted them to do it in. I always think about this in my teaching and coaching now. What would the opposite look like? So the opposite of feeling emotion is all the things I mentioned earlier: retreating, avoiding, judging…
What would change for you if you could stay with the emotion for a few minutes, instead of seeking pleasure to immediately feel better? Here’s what I think would happen: It would start to dissipate and lose its power.
Once you feel an emotion and you get curious about it, it’s done its work. It has relayed its message to you. But if you continue to resist and avoid, that emotion knocks harder and louder because you’re not paying attention. Emotions are very determined messengers. Ignoring it doesn’t make it go away, it makes it actually get more disruptive.
3. Ask questions about your emotions
After we observe and lean in, we start asking really good questions. Why am I feeling this? Why is this emotion here? Am I making this hurt more than is necessary? What am I choosing to make this emotion mean? Why am I afraid of it, or unwilling to feel it?
Emotion is simply a vibration in the human body. Emotions have never killed you, even though I know sometimes it feels that way. However, what you do to avoid them or to numb them, that stuff kills you.
4. Choose your response
Based on the answer to those questions and what you know now, how do you want to proceed? How can you honor this emotion and your health simultaneously?
For example, when I’m feeling stressed I could drink, I could eat, I could busy myself with more work… None of which is going to support my health. So sleep is usually my number one go-to, because it always helps me to unpack stress. Sometimes I need to sit down and write a list of everything that I’m processing to get it out of my brain, or I need to have a conversation to verbally process it with somebody else.
All of those things allow me to process the emotion and honor my health simultaneously, in a way that nourishes my wellbeing rather than destroys it.
Think about that. What if you really stopped fearing emotion? How would you show up differently in your life if you were willing to feel any emotion all the way through? How would you start living your life differently?
When you practice granting yourself permission to feel emotion, you will start pursuing discomfort on purpose in order to change your life. You won’t avoid the walk that you’ve scheduled at noon, going to the gym, cooking that new healthy meal that you decided to make for your family tonight. You won’t avoid putting yourself to bed earlier even though it’s a little uncomfortable and inconvenient.
You really start living your life when you give yourself permission to feel, because you take full ownership for how you’re showing up. And you take full ownership for your emotions having a seat at the table.
This is what I help my clients do. So if you are reading this and realizing that a big part of the reason that you’re not feeling well and you’re not taking better care of yourself is because you are reacting, avoiding, distracting from emotion… You should check out Rumble & Rise, which is my amazing private community.