You Can’t Run From Your Feelings

But you can actually use them to build a happier life.

Dr. Marina Harris
Sep 19, 2020 · 7 min read
A woman with mascara running down her face holding a sign with a smile up in front of her mouth.
Photo by Sydney Sims on Unsplash

Anger. Grief. Shame. Guilt. Sadness. Envy.

These emotions feel so scary. They make us feel isolated. They’re painful. They cut sharp and deep.

So our first instinct is to run away. We stifle them. We bury them deep within ourselves to hide them from the world, hide them from ourselves.

Except stifling your feelings doesn’t make them go away.

Trust me. I was a competitive gymnast for 14 years. In many ways, stifling my emotions was what got me through. It helped me push past injuries, helped me learn tricks that were terrifying, and gave me laser focus when I was completely exhausted.

But muddling through and numbing emotions for years has consequences. And you might not realize them until it’s too late.

When you push down your feelings, they have to go somewhere. So they sit in you and fester. They continue to grow and grow until your emotions feel so out of control they threaten to swallow you.

It makes sense why people push down their emotions. Emotions are scary when you don’t understand them or have the skills to cope with them.

You can’t run from your emotions.

I finally realized the consequences of pushing down my emotions and chose to take a different path.

Instead, here is everything you need to know to stop being afraid of your emotions and start dealing with them.

Eggs with drawn-on faces displaying different emotions. From left to right: indifference, surprise, happiness, sadness, fear.
Photo by Tengyart on Unsplash

Everything You Need to Know About Feelings

When we feel something new, it’s really weird. It’s like, “What the heck is this new sensation I’m experiencing?” We don’t know what to do with it. And if we don’t know what to do, we get frustrated and afraid — this doesn’t help us deal with our emotions.

To feel our feelings, we first need to understand them.

Emotions are important information.

Feelings don’t exist in humans for shits and giggles. They are actually very important to human functioning — weird, I know!

Each emotion is associated with its own set of important information.

For example, sadness tells us that we have lost something valuable to us. Fear is important for our survival — it helps us fight or flee when danger is present, which helps us survive. Disgust helps us avoid contamination that could endanger us. Anger shows up when our goals are blocked. Guilt helps us change our behavior — we feel guilty when we’ve done something wrong. Feeling guilty tells us that we’ve done something that doesn’t sit well with us, which helps us change.

Take the example of cheating on a test. If I value honesty but I cheat on a test, I am likely to feel guilty. The guilt tells me that I’ve done something to violate my values. Because I feel guilt, I am less likely to cheat on a test in the future. Without guilt, I could keep doing unhelpful things. The guilt is uncomfortable, but it helps me change my behavior for the better.

If we ignore our feelings, we miss vital information.

Noticing our feelings and what they tell us shows us the big picture. It can help soften the emotion to make it bearable. It can help direct us towards behavior that makes our life better.

Photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash

Feelings are associated with thoughts, physical sensations, urges, and behaviors.

Emotions don’t occur in a vacuum. Emotions are associated with a host of other thoughts (what we think), physical sensations in our body, urges (desire to do something), and behaviors (what we do).

For each emotion we have, there is some kind of prompting event that causes it.

The way we think about that event influences the emotions we have. If I see a friend across the street who doesn’t wave at me and I think, “Oh she didn’t see me,” that is a lot different than thinking “Wow I can’t believe she didn’t wave at me. She must be ignoring me on purpose.” The prompting event is the same — a friend not waving at me — but the way I think about that event changes how I feel.

In the first scenario, I might feel some disappointment. In the second scenario, I am likely to feel sad, angry, and rejected. Because I feel really strong emotions in the second scenario, I would be more likely to act on those feelings, rather than feeling a little disappointed and then moving on with my day.

We also feel emotions in our bodies. When we feel anger, we might feel a hot sensation in our face and our muscles tense up. When we feel anxious, we can feel a tightening in our stomach or get nauseated. It’s important to recognize when our emotions are expressing themselves in our bodies so that we can listen to them.

These emotions also come with urges to do things. When we feel anxious or ashamed we have urges to hide, avoid, or run away. When we feel anger we can have urges to attack. These urges sometimes happen so quickly that we act before thinking. Understanding these urges is a crucial step in better understanding our emotions and changing our behavior.

For example, yesterday I had a splitting migraine coupled with nausea. I asked my husband to go downstairs to get me some nausea medication, as I could barely open my eyes. I counted to five in my head and he still didn’t move. I felt a hot sensation bubbling up in my chest. I thought, “Why can’t he just go when I ask him? Can’t he see that I’m in excruciating pain?” I had urges to yell at him to go downstairs and get the medicine now!

But I was writing this article and noticing my feelings was at the front of my mind. I noticed the physical sensations, which was a cue to ask myself, “What am I feeling?” I noted that I was feeling anger. Because I know that anger occurs when a goal is blocked, a lightbulb in my head went off. I was able to say, “Oh wow, it makes sense that I feel angry because my goal of getting nausea medicine is blocked. It isn’t happening as quickly as I want it to.”

Guess what happened? I felt my anger soften. I took a pause and was able to understand my emotions. The pause gave me enough time to approach the situation calmly.

Without the pause, I likely would have yelled at my husband for not getting up quickly enough. In the five seconds I paused and checked my emotions, he got up and got the pain medicine. Fight avoided. Problem solved.

If we understand emotions, we can change them. Without that knowledge, we are powerless.

You can’t selectively block negative feelings.

When most people think about emotions, they think about the uncomfortable emotions. But there are positive emotions too. The entire range of feelings includes joy, pride, happiness, gratitude, and love.

I used to think that ignoring my feelings had no downside. What I didn’t realize is that this strategy blocks out positive emotions too.

Stifling positive emotions prevents us from feeling joy, fulfillment, and empathy. It prevents us from forging meaningful connections with others.

You might be able to numb the pain, but numbing the pain leads to a less joyful, less fulfilled life.

When you think about your life, do you want to be remembered for just going through the motions? Or do you want to experience all the highs that life has to offer?

It is not worthwhile to live a life that is void of joy simply to avoid feeling pain.

Finally Learn to Deal with Your Emotions

Feeling emotions is hard for all humans. But feeling emotions doesn’t have to be terrifying. It can be empowering.

Don’t run from your emotions. When you feel something, ask yourself “What am I feeling right now?” and name it. Ask, “What information is this emotion communicating to me?”

Check-in with yourself. Note what thoughts come up with that emotion. See where you feel that emotion in your body. Take inventory.

And use that information to help direct you towards decisions that are meaningful to you.

When you arm yourself with information, you can be prepared. Knowing how you feel and why you feel that way takes the fear away. It can soften the emotion and make it bearable.

But emotions don’t have to be just bearable. Experiencing emotions is what makes us human. Otherwise, we are no different from androids.

Embrace your emotions. Celebrate them. Understand them — and use them to create a joyful and more fulfilled life.

Photo by Lidya Nada on Unsplash

Ascent Publication

Strive for happier.

Dr. Marina Harris

Written by

PhD in Clinical Psychology | Empathetic advice backed by science - because I want to help you live a more joyful, more fulfilled life | www.drmarinaharris.com

Ascent Publication

Strive for happier. Join a community of storytellers documenting the climb to happiness and fulfillment.

Dr. Marina Harris

Written by

PhD in Clinical Psychology | Empathetic advice backed by science - because I want to help you live a more joyful, more fulfilled life | www.drmarinaharris.com

Ascent Publication

Strive for happier. Join a community of storytellers documenting the climb to happiness and fulfillment.

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