A Better Life

The Scariest Thing to Do is Feel

Avoiding feelings gives a false sense of comfort and control. By facing them and knowing how to manage them, we find a happier and healthier way to live.

5 minutes
Haley Stomp

My sons and I have a habit of watching funny videos before bedtime reading. I have introduced them to some of my favorites like Nate Bargatze, Jimmy Kimmel’s Mean Tweets and the classic SNL Celebrity Jeopardy skits (Turd Ferguson, anyone?). It’s not brain food, but it does make us laugh and helps us wind down and share an intimate moment before bedtime. And I do think Mean Tweets teaches how famous people deal with criticism on social media in a positive way; there is a lesson in confidence among the creative name-calling and jokes.

My younger son needs to read or listen to an audio book before bed to help him unwind and calm his busy mind to fall asleep. He likes Mac B Kid Spy books, the Who-What-Where non-fiction series and the old standby Diary of a Wimpy Kid series.

My older son and I tend to connect on stories with deeper meaning. He likes scary stories like Goosebumps and stories with more difficult themes like The War That Saved My Life, Words on Fire and My Side of the Mountain.

The War That Saved My Life is a book about a young girl named Ada who was born with a clubfoot living in London with her abusive mother and younger brother during World War II. Ada is not allowed to leave the flat because her mother is ashamed of her. When the children of London are sent to the countryside in anticipation of bombing, Ada is not allowed to go. But Ada decides on her own to sneak out with her brother to board the train.

This is a powerful book that my older son would beg me to keep reading to him at night. “One more chapter!” When we finished it, he begged me to buy the next book in the series, which I did instantly, and we completed it together. Recently, my younger son has been searching for new books, and he asked me to read “that one book that you and Nick read together.”

So, we started the first few chapters of The War That Saved My Life together. He ended up reading more chapters on his own after I was ready for bed. The next night I asked him if he wanted to read that book again, and he said, “I need something funny,” and I thought, “I see you.” He didn’t want to feel what the book was making him feel; it’s tough stuff.

I can see myself in both of my children’s reading interests. I enjoy a deep, meaningful and often historical ride of a story and the occasional thriller. But I also know there are times when I need something lighthearted, and I can’t add to my emotional pile with someone else’s hardships. It also got me thinking about the difference between having an emotionally full plate and being afraid to feel things.

Do you ever avoid things because you might feel something unpleasant? I know I have and do. Avoiding difficult feelings has been a mental headline for me for many years. “You’re too nice,” my colleagues used to tell me, which really meant I wasn’t addressing things that needed handling or I wasn’t standing up for myself. I was too afraid of how others would feel or scared to deal with the reactions of others, but all of this was at my own expense. And I wasn’t doing anyone else a favor either. I had a false sense of control and comfort, and meanwhile, avoiding action was a chaos creator.

I can’t tell you the lengths I’ve gone to avoid feeling things, grasping at paper tigers until they ripped apart, and the major disasters I’ve dealt with because the original things I didn’t deal with were, unfortunately, not magically going away, but growing like hungry mushrooms in the dark.

There is a reason we say, “Live and learn.” I’ve been living and learning, and one thing I have learned is the best way is through. I am grateful for all the help and work to learn how not to be as afraid of feeling the feelings and taking action to address them.

Some of my mental go-to tips:

1. Instead of running away from a feeling, pause and observe. I recently did a ten-minute meditation on my Calm app called SAIN. SAIN is an acronym for Stop, Allow, Investigate and Non-Identification. It’s a thought process to help you find space between the feeling and whether that feeling identifies you. It doesn’t mean you stop feeling something, but it does allow you to try to understand your feelings more objectively.

2. The Best Way is Through. An easy reminder to steel yourself and move forward into what you’re facing. It takes time and practice to prove to yourself that the journey through is worth the outcome, but each time builds on the previous one, and soon it becomes less scary. The bonus is the more you do it, the quicker you get past the point of fear to the point of resolving those feelings.

3. Feeling your feelings won’t kill you and it won’t be as bad as you think. I’ve written about this before, but what’s worse – waiting for the gun to go off at the beginning of a race, or fighting through the last two miles with a blister, side pain and almost no willpower to put your next foot forward? Honestly, for me it’s the anticipation of the start.

4. You don’t have to do it alone. None of us are as special as we think. Most everyone our age or gender or stage in life is having very similar experiences. Finding people you can trust to share your feelings with is crucial. I know there is often guilt by asking others to carry our burdens with us, but there is something great about being able to return the favor. This is how you build relationships, and we all thrive when we feel safe and loved.

5. Meditating, praying and journaling all provide spaces to sort out and manage our feelings. For me, these activities allow me to identify what’s really going on and how I’m really feeling. They allow me to metaphorically float above my life and look in on what’s happening without the pressure of being in the action. The disconnect brings relief and reflection to go back and fight the good fight, even if observation is only for one or two minutes. Honestly, close your eyes and count to thirty to see how truly long this can feel but not actually be. I used to think I couldn’t afford a few minutes every day to be better at dealing with life, but I was wrong.

6. Read books and watch shows with personal conflict. Observe people you admire handle difficult situations. Watch how things get resolved, or don’t. You can learn a lot about how others go through instead of around.

7. When something difficult happens, stay in it. Start small. Treat it like an experiment. A “push a button to see what happens” kind of approach. Keep practicing, and it will eventually become easier.

I am not done working on feeling my feelings and knowing the best way to manage them, but I have made some improvements that make living my life better. I’m still scrolling memes but I’m also more present and in control of my life. I know that by getting better at my own feelings, I’m more able to teach my children how to do the same so they can appreciate the funny stuff and also not be afraid of the hard stuff.