One of my friends recently got a new dog. Still young, and a bit anxious around new people, the dog barks whenever someone comes to the door, as most dogs do. And my friend kindly soothes the dog, thanking her for letting her know someone is there, and then telling her that this is a friend. As she lets me in and hugs me, she verbally reassures the dog that I’m a person who is okay to welcome to their home. And the dog settles down, squirming with pleasure from the praise she receives, knowing she’s done a good job taking care of her owner.
This image came to mind recently as I was speaking with someone about the value of emotions. For those who struggle with big and intense feelings, or who learned early in life that having emotions are bad, it is tempting to try to shut the feelings down and make them go away.
But feelings, like the puppy at the door, have a way of persisting in telling you what they think you need to know. There’s someone at the door—really! There’s someone at the door!! The more we ignore them, the bigger and more disruptive they tend to get. But when we welcome the information and listen to the message they have for us, they settle down, knowing they’ve successfully done their job.
When we have a history of big feelings that haven’t always felt helpful—like with a mood disorder or anxiety disorder, we can either get overwhelmed by the feelings, or we might dismiss them as part of the disorder and therefore of no value.
But we’re designed to have feelings for a good reason. They are important sources of information for us. They tell us about our circumstances and activate us to respond.
Fear warns us about things that might not be safe, and mobilizes us to protect ourselves. Anger tells us when something is unfair or our rights have been violated, and moves us to seek justice or right the wrong. Sadness tells us when to grieve a loss, and gets us turning to others for comfort. Each one of our feelings has an important message for us, a warning or signal that shouldn’t be ignored.
Sometimes we have to work out what the message is. For someone with an anxiety disorder or a history of trauma, it might take a bit of sorting out whether this current feeling is some present fear to be addressed immediately, or a trigger from the past that needs some further healing, or an out-sized dose of anxiety that requires some extra self-soothing and use of calming strategies in order to get through the moment. But whatever the message is, the feelings themselves are still valuable.
What if, like my friend and her puppy, we welcomed our feelings and the messages they gave us? Thank you, anxious feelings for letting me know something is up and that I need to sort out how to respond. What is it that you are telling me I need? Ah, right, I’m being triggered again—thanks for helping me recognize that so I can take a break and breathe through this before I speak. Good job, feelings—I’m taking care of it now. And, message received, the feelings settle.
And what if we gave this same gift to others? What if we honoured and welcomed their feelings instead of dismissing or rejecting them. What if we listened to the anxiety and explored what would help rather than simply telling them their anxiety is unreasonable. What if we welcomed their sad feelings instead of trying to cheer them up, and took some time to grieve together.
I know that this is a bit of a simplistic picture, and that life is complicated and every person is unique. But if as individuals, and in our relationships, and as communities, we get better at welcoming and responding to our feelings and to the feelings of others, that could only be a good thing.
Susan Winter Fledderus is a Clinical Therapist with Shalem Mental Health Network