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Sitting with painful emotions is the hardest thing I’ve ever done.
Feelings of abandonment, loneliness, insecurity, and fear of the future trigger me in a major way.
They wake me up before dawn or trigger me midday, but the result is the same: a rapid, rising tide of anxiety and panic that crashes over me like a tsunami, leaving me tossed and tumbled, struggling to breathe and twisted up like a pretzel.
It’s f*cking unbearable.
My skin crawls, and I can’t sit still, let alone function. If I could claw my way out of my body for relief, I would.
Since I never learned adequate coping tools for this sh*t, I’d rely on my dysfunctional fallbacks—trying hard to stuff my feelings back into the dark closet of my soul and slam the door. But when it’s painful enough, I’m forced to turn to denial, distraction, and alcohol until the storm mercifully passes.
I spent my adult life repeating this cycle, living a life of avoidance and disconnection with myself and others. I spent more time running away from my emotions than embracing them.
My life grew smaller with time instead of larger.
Life is about deep, meaningful connections. But my childhood wounds mixed with poor choices laid waste to the landscape of my life, and I found myself lying faceup on the jagged surface of rock-bottom, staring up at the emptiness that filled my life.
I didn’t want that anymore. The prospect of living the rest of my life without healthy connections became more frightening than facing the painful feelings behind my anxiety. I began the journey of deep inner work to learn how to sit with and honor my painful and traumatic feelings.
It’s one thing to realize you need to make major changes in your life—the problem is that we’re often left asking ourselves: How the f*ck do we do it?
For me, it was a big ask to suddenly turn toward the shameful and unworthy parts of myself I’ve detested my entire life. And shame is a motherf*cker that doesn’t give up without a fight.
Sitting with our painful feelings is hard work, requiring a lot of courage and commitment. But the only way to learn how to manage life in a healthier way is to face the painful, messy feelings inside ourselves. This is how I learned how to do it:
We need to get comfortable being uncomfortable.
This first step is the hardest. I made avoidance an art form, so trying to sit through uncomfortable feelings required a major change. When I feel my anxiety triggered, I commit to sitting quietly with my feelings and breathing through them for three minutes.
For 180 seconds, I allow the fear and anxiety to wash over and through me. And sometimes, I hold on for dear life as the pit in my stomach grows into raging winds of discomfort.
Be brave enough to not run.
Sitting through discomfort has challenged me as much as anything in my life. I try to keep my goals simple:
Don’t get up.
Do not run.
Just hang in there.
We’re doing well if we can learn to sit with our feelings—no matter how uncomfortable it gets—without stuffing them down or getting the f*ck up and running away.
Learn to observe what we’re feeling.
I never fully understood what leaning into discomfort was until I practiced breathing and sitting with my feelings. Like so many things, with practice it became easier, and I began to observe what I was feeling without judgment or shame:
Where in my body do the feelings originate?
What do they feel like?
Do they travel around?
Where am I holding tension?
Does the intensity change?
Understanding the way our anxiety works and how we respond to it is crucial. I noticed that my anxiety begins like a rapid-fire shot of adrenaline emanating from my solar plexus, then slowly radiates up and throughout my body. My breath quickens, I feel jittery, and I get an intense urge to shut down.
Recognizing that was one of the most liberating experiences of my life. Instead of operating on an unconscious level and pushing it all away, I learned that if I found the courage to lean into the storm, it would begin to dissipate after several minutes and slowly fade away. But if it was a particularly difficult episode, I might go back to just sitting with it for a few minutes—and that’s okay too.
Attaching words to our feelings helps.
Language helps transform our feelings into relatable terms that we can understand.
Does it feel like:
Fear or insecurity?
Rejection or worthlessness?
Anger or resentment?
Shame or grief?
We’re digging deep now.
If we can answer these questions, we can start unpacking our feelings. I learned that much of my anxiety and painful feelings were rooted in my fear that I was unlovable. For the first time, I was able to label my darkest feelings as grief over a lost childhood; I feared that because I’d buried these feelings so deep inside of me, no one would ever really know me, including myself.
Have we met before?
Attaching language to my feelings allowed me to identify them, and I began to realize that they were the same feelings I had from childhood. I found myself transported back in time to the very place I tried to avoid my entire life.
Slowly, I began unraveling the unhealed wounds of my inner child that I’ve been carrying with me throughout adulthood.
We think we’re triggered by events in the present, but often, we’re actually reacting to the traumatic wounds of our past.
Learning to sit with our painful feelings allows us the chance to heal. The process isn’t perfect—it’s not supposed to be. But when we learn to sit quietly with our most vulnerable feelings, we’re also learning to treat ourselves with the same empathy and kindness we used to reserve for others.
Healing is a process, not an event. If we can take one step at a time—one feeling at a time—we’ll walk through the discomfort and into the rest of our lives.