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It's Okay to Cry: How to Handle Big Emotions
IT’S OKAY TO CRY | It’s ok to feel exhausted, or angry, or discouraged. It’s ok to find rage building in your chest, or to feel fear and worry buzzing like bees in your gut. It’s ok—really, it is—to have big, powerful emotions, and it’s also ok if you don’t know what to do about them.
This may not feel like a shocking statement, coming from a therapist, but it’s worth saying even so.
It’s worth saying because I’m pretty sure you’ve heard differently.
You may have heard that being angry is unattractive. You might have been told (or you might tell yourself) that your sadness makes you weak, or that fear is unacceptable. You may have learned overtly, or through experience, that the things you feel are inappropriate for someone of your gender, your race, your age, or your position. You may have discovered that sharing your emotions with others can make them uncomfortable, and can have painful or embarrassing consequences.
I suspect you’ve heard and felt these things because I’ve heard and felt them too, and so have my therapy and coaching clients who come to see me, seeking a place where—finally—their emotions are welcome.
I imagine that you, like me, like each of us, have adapted to these expectations. You might use humor as your shield, or you might intellectualize, straining the vulnerable bits out of the experience in favor of a punchline or a cognitive conclusion.
Another popular choice is distraction (hi, smartphones and those earbuds you never take out anymore); or—another crowd-pleaser here—you might use your work as a hideout, allowing busy-ness (and often, positive feedback) to drown out any emotions that might come knocking. One that I use all the time? Taking care of someone else: I let whatever the other person is feeling fill all the space in the room.
You might identify with some (or even all) of the defense mechanisms I’ve listed here, or you might not. Your way of coping might be food, or substances, or exercise, or sex, or sleep, or even—brace yourself—something you learned in therapy. Yes, strange though it might sound, most strategies related to “emotion regulation” (think: breathing exercises, grounding practices, and many forms of mindfulness) function primarily to protect us from emotions, buffers between ourselves and the emotions that plague us.
You might be thinking, “hey, isn’t a lot of that stuff good?” If so, you’re right!
Wheel of Emotions
Sometimes—often, even—our emotions can feel messy, draining, unprofessional, and in the way. They can make it hard for us to, say, focus at work, or to be kind in conversations, or to fall asleep at night. They can also push us outside our personal windows of tolerance (the degree to which you can endure a particular emotion before you stop acting like your best self).
When that happens, things can get ugly, or even dangerous, and it is very important for each of us to have ways of helping ourselves stay within that safe, manageable emotional range. Some ways are healthier and more effective than others; the key is to find something that works for you in the moment without making your situation worse long term (addiction is one way certain defenses can backfire, for instance).
But let’s say you’ve got a defense that’s working for you, consistently creating distance from your emotions, and not creating any kind of perceptible danger. Is this enough?
I would argue no. It isn’t enough, either for me, or for my clients. Here’s why:
The emotions are still there, unresolved. In your less-guarded moments, you feel them. And if you’ve been fending them off for a long time, you might notice that they start to change over time—and that these changes can be deeply unpleasant. We tell ourselves that emotions go away with time, but often the reality is much less rosy.
Feelings, like fruits and veggies, are meant to be digested while they’re fresh, and an emotion left unattended can rot: frustration can build into rage; hurt can fester and become resentment or even contempt; and sadness can, when left to itself, become a full-blown depression.
We know, deep down, that we can’t go on avoiding our emotions forever, but it can be hard to stop—especially if the only alternative seems to be allowing the emotions to overwhelm you.
So let’s say you wanted to approach your emotions differently (Maybe you're ready to agree that It's Okay to Cry). What would that look like?
This is a question I hear a LOT (especially lately from my online therapy clients), and it’s a good one. In fact, it still gets clinicians and researchers across the disciplines of psychology, counseling, and human development into spirited and complex debate.
For starters, it’s important to recognize that we have emotions for a reason. Just like hunger lets you know that you need to eat, or pain tells you that you’ve been injured, emotions give us important information about ourselves and our needs.
Emotions happen faster than conscious thought, which means that they give us the ability to notice and respond to our environment quickly. They are also fundamental to human bonding: without emotions we cannot experience connection, empathy, love, or loyalty. We can’t create partnerships, families or communities, and we can’t even communicate coherently with ourselves.
In other words, our emotions are an asset. They’re not a necessary evil, an inconvenience, or a character flaw: they are essential feedback, allowing us to keep ourselves safe, whole, and connected to those we love.
In order to tap into this strength, I walk my clients (and myself) through five simple steps, counting them off on my fingers.
5 Simple Steps to Emotional Health
#1 The first thing to do is learn to notice our emotions as they happen. (Hint: the easiest way to do this, especially if it’s unfamiliar, is to start with your body. Is your forehead creasing? Is your heart beating fast, or slow? Are your hands or feet fidgeting? Might you be tensing your shoulders, biting your lip, clenching your fists, holding your breath?) This may involve learning to pause some of the strategies mentioned earlier, allowing yourself to direct your attention toward the emotion rather than away.
#2 The second step is simply to name the emotion. You may be feeling more than one at a time, but you can avoid confusion and overwhelm by just focusing on one at a time. So now perhaps you’ve paused, noticed a lump in your throat, and thought to yourself, “I’m feeling sad right now.”
#3 Now for the third step: ask yourself where the emotion is coming from. (This is a meditation technique called “reflecting:” you ask yourself a question, allowing your mind to answer without conscious effort, without pushing. You may surprise yourself with how you answer!)
#4 The fourth step is crucial: validate what you’re feeling. Emotions don’t get resolved until they’re taken seriously, so this is your chance to tell yourself things like: “It makes sense that I feel this way;” “My feelings are legitimate;” “It’s ok that I’m feeling this right now;” “I can feel this and still be ok,” “It's okay to cry.”
In this step, self-compassion starts to peel back the layers of resistance we have toward a certain feeling, giving ourselves permission to own our experiences rather than smothering them or shaming ourselves. And here’s the twist: even as we make room for the emotion, we start to feel calmer.
Finally, we turn our attention to the need indicated by the emotion, and try to find a way of meeting it. So if you’re feeling guilty, you might need to make an apology. If you’re feeling angry or hurt, you might need to protect yourself. If you’re feeling lonely, you might need to try connecting with someone. And if you’re feeling sad, you might just need to cry.
This step can be tricky, because sometimes the thing we feel we need is impossible (for instance, if you’re grieving the passing of a loved one, you might truly feel that you need them back; or if you’re deeply ashamed of something you said to your partner, you might feel you need a time machine to go back and change your behavior).
It can also be hard because sometimes emotions urge us to try unhelpful things to make ourselves feel better, like punching someone who’s made us angry. It can be tempting to think that resolving the external event is the same thing as resolving the emotion, but that’s problematic too: it’s often beyond our capacity to “fix” whatever has happened to make us feel this way, and in any case, emotional needs often transcend their impetus (they’re often bigger or deeper than a single event).
#5 The key to the fifth and final step of this process is to choose kindness toward yourself and the emotion at hand, demonstrating that you’re taking your feelings seriously, and that you’re going to act accordingly.
Walking yourself through these steps isn’t easy, especially the first time. If you’re new to this sort of thing, be sure to cut yourself some slack: it takes practice. You might feel silly reassuring yourself, or you might get lost in your own thoughts as you try to figure out where a particular feeling is coming from. It’s normal to struggle.
As I write this, the world is struggling, and each of us are working as hard as we can to hold ourselves together, weathering circumstances we could not predict and cannot resolve. Our shared predicament makes it more important now than ever to know what to do with our feelings. In crisis time, we need something better than defenses and avoidance—we need to bring curiosity and compassion to our own emotions, and to the emotions of others.
And remember…it's okay to cry.
Wishing you the best,
Amanda Schaeffer, M.S., MFTC
Amanda Schaeffer, M.S., MFTC is a marriage counselor, family therapist, life coach and individual therapist who creates a warm, safe environment, bringing out the best in you and your relationships. She empowers couples and individuals to heal and grow using evidence-based approaches that create real results and lasting change.
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