We reach out to therapists because we want to change the way we feel. Most therapists and coaches, however, will very quickly turn the focus onto your thoughts. Their justification, of course, is that if you change (or control) your thoughts, then you will change the way you feel. But changing your thoughts doesn’t really make all that much different in the long run.
Have you ever, for example, had this thought: “I know my thoughts are irrational, but I still feel like something is wrong.” If you have, then you are not alone. I have heard this phrase from clients so many times. And this is because changing our thoughts doesn’t really impact our emotional self all that much. If you really want to change the way you feel, you need to work directly with your emotions.
Think of how you would comfort a child who is upset. You wouldn’t try and talk them out of feeling bad; you would hold them tight, and ask them to tell you what happened, and how this makes them feel. You would, in technical terms, be acknowledging and validating their feelings, and helping them to process (make sense of) their experience and their feelings. The result of which, they will transform from being upset back to happiness.
And this is, I believe, not only what we want and expect from therapists, but also what we need. But instead, we are challenged on our thinking and told that we need to change our thoughts.
This being said, learning some tools to look at and work with our thoughts definitely has its place. But our thoughts are, in general, a result of who we are—they reflect our mood, rather than our mood reflecting our thoughts. And we know this is true because whether someone is happy or sad, we can generally tell by the way they think and talk.
So what is the answer; how do we change the way we feel? Simply put, the only thing that works, is to look at and work with our emotions. We need to acknowledge them and validate them, to talk about them, and make sense of them, just like with the child in the example above.
But many of us (if not most of us) have never been taught how to do this. Instead, we have been told that we need to control and master our thoughts. And learning something new like this is scary and difficult. But you know that it is true. You know that you need to stop turning away from your emotions and ignoring them. You know you need to learn to embrace them.
So next time you feel distressed, don’t try and think it away, just be with it. Acknowledge it by saying “I am sad.” Validate it, by saying “And it’s okay that I’m sad because someone upset me.” And if you can, tell someone about it by saying, “This thing happened to me today, and it made me feel sad.” That is how to be with your emotions. That is how to show yourself the same level of compassion you would show a child. You accept them, just the way they are. And through that, you transform the way you feel.
How do we change the way we feel? Simply put, we must turn towards our emotions as they are in the moment. We must look at them and respond to them, acknowledge them and validate them, talk about them, and make sense of them.