This time of year in particular – being in the homestretch of winter – has generally proven itself to be a challenging one for me in past years. Persistent weather-related inconveniences and diminishing hours of daylight are enough to impact anyone’s sense of optimism and daily motivation. Recently, however, I became aware of a feeling of discontentment and general unease that I could not seem to shake off. It made me feel like there was something wrong, but that just couldn’t be right.
As a couples therapist, much of my clinical practice focuses on relationship issues and helping partners repair patterns of interaction and improve the emotional connection between each other. In other words, I help people feel more satisfied in their relationships. Therefore, most of my work in therapy has to do with feelings related to love, intimacy and romance, or lack thereof. Being newly engaged and in the trenches of wedding planning myself, I anticipated a certain specialness to accompany this time of year considering the congruence between my role at work and events unfolding in my personal life. Throw in the timing around February, the hallmark month for love & romance, and I thought my stress would be at an all-time low. Yet somehow, there remained a familiar feeling of discontent. But why? Shouldn’t all the positive, exciting things I have going on in my life right now negate my typical “blah” feelings that pop up around this time every year? Never-the-less, my distinct feelings of discomfort were both difficult to pinpoint and ultimately left unresolved.
My emotional state surfaced unexpectedly and in such stark contrast to not only how I anticipated myself feeling, but also how I wanted myself to feel. Regardless of my actual feelings, I knew (or so I thought) they didn’t feel right. Which got me thinking – I can’t assign myself emotions based on what feelings should match with my experiences, no matter how many circumstances align with one another to predict a certain set of emotions. Even though I knew and believed this, it was still hard for me to wrap my mind around. Instead of feeling a sense of excitement and happiness as a byproduct of my overlapping roles, I felt something else – not the opposite, but also I didn’t know what it was. What I was left with challenged me to revisit skills I had taught myself regarding self-acceptance and authenticity. My recent emotional experiences reminded me of the importance of practicing self-compassion and self-acceptance daily. Self-acceptance is so very important when it comes to mental health and maintaining our own emotional baseline. True acceptance of self takes continuous practice and requires us to consistently choose our self everyday as a person worthy of attending to.
Therefore, no matter what our emotional state may be, it is important for us to remain present and employ mindfulness as a means to gaining self-awareness (the key to everything) and soothing ourselves. When we are effortful in attending to our own emotional states, we can move through various experiences with ease and respond accurately to the range of emotions present within us all. As a general rule of thumb, I always practice checking-in with myself regularly to remain aware of my changing emotional states, making sure not to instead avoid or ignore them. Sitting and tolerating emotions tends to be less distressing once they are identified and labeled accurately. The final step then is to fully embrace and accept the feelings, positive or negative, while reminding ourselves that they are temporary and cannot be controlled. Therefore, we must choose to embrace and lean into our feelings, despite whether or not they may seem acceptable. We tend to receive messages that not falling somewhere along the range of positive emotions is bad or unacceptable. It is often believed that people should always feel a general sense of happiness and comfort, regardless of circumstance, and difficult emotional states are not to be tolerated or prolonged. However, this leads us to fully embrace only a portion of our internal experiences, while invalidating and rejecting the remainder of our feelings that are equally important for us to experience.
Every emotional state is useful & operates to inform us of areas for potential growth. We must be willing to listen truthfully and remain open to accepting. As it turns out, it is ok to not feel ok. We just have to allow ourselves to do so.