The best way through is through

Aug 21, 2020

As children, we are taught that feeling negative emotion is somehow incorrect. “Don’t be nervous.” “Don’t worry about it.” “Don’t be sad.” Or the famous, “Do you want me to give you something to cry about?”

We go about life thinking that it should be 100% filled with positive emotions. So when it isn’t, we think something has gone wrong.

When our world completely stops turning with the loss of our person, we find ourselves drowning in heavy emotions with no life raft in sight.  

Add to that, our primitive human brains are wired primarily to seek comfort, keep us safe and be efficient. So naturally we try to avoid or resist negative emotion, attempting to cover our feelings up, trying to avoid them or doing things to distract from them. This is called buffering.

We reach for Netflix and ice cream to distract from the intense pain. We run on the treadmill of busyness – overscheduling ourselves to avoid feeling empty and alone. In the moments of extreme fatigue, we snap at those around us, even those trying to help.

The authentic human experience

When we avoid or distract ourselves from negative feelings, we deny our most authentic experience of being alive. We don’t give ourselves a chance to truly witness what we’re feeling. We prevent our ability to acknowledge it, to better understand it.

When we can learn to befriend the discomfort of negative emotions, we can begin to heal. It’s the most direct route to navigating through grief. The best way through is through. It turns out that avoidance is the long road.

What we resist, persists

Negative feelings wait patiently and while they wait, they grow. So when we avoid feelings, there is ultimately a net negative consequence. We still have negative feelings plus the negative consequence of the buffer-of-choice: the extra pounds thanks to the ice cream, the exhaustion from busyness, or the regret of flying off the handle. 

Rather than reach for a short-term buffer that comes with negative consequences, we can instead be present with our negative emotions, fully experience them and courageously invite them in. Because once you feel an emotion, even a very strong one, it loses power over you.

The courage to feel

Processing an emotion is being willing to stick with it all the way until it leaves your body on its own. It is inviting it in and breathing through it until it loosens its grip on you. It is the most powerful practice to learn because it not only helps us through grief, it also unlocks any result we want in our lives.

How to do it

First, learn to spot the thoughts that often prevent us from feeling difficult feelings. Here is a list of common ones:

  1. All thoughts about time: It’s taking too long or it will take too long, I don’t have time to sit here and feel my emotions, I don’t have time to deal with it, I have stuff to do, there are more important things to do. The truth is that feelings wait, and as they wait, they grow. So technically there are two options: deal now or deal with bigger feelings later, and in the meantime suffer the consequences of buffering.
  2. Fear that something has gone wrong, that it shouldn’t be this way, it shouldn’t feel this way, it’s too painful, it’s too much. Feelings are a roadmap to growth, a waypoint indicating the internal work that needs to happen in order to become the next version of ourselves. Feelings, therefore, are exactly as they should be.
  3. Self-doubt and criticism that you’re doing it wrong. Although the brain likes to offer these thoughts, the truth is that there is no wrong way, and we can’t grow from a place of self-criticism.
  4. Fear that you will lose yourself in the emotion and never recover, that it will never go away, or it won’t be able to be contained. Actually, not processing an emotion is to keep it locked inside the body rather than giving it attention and releasing it.
  5. Feeling negative emotion will be harmful others. We’re more likely to react to unprocessed negative emotion in a way that harms relationships – when we snap or yell at someone. To process negative emotion is to release it.

Try it

While the ultimate goal of processing a feeling is remaining present with it until is released from the body, as a newbie, simply give yourself 2 minutes or 10 minutes to be fully present with it. Create a set amount of time to simply feel.

Notice the feeling, pay attention to it. What does it feel like? How would you describe it to someone else? Where do you feel it in your body? Does it stay in that place or move? Is it fast or slow, heavy or light? If it were a color, what color would it be? How else would you describe it?

Resist any urge to push it away. You know you’re actually feeling an emotion when you can allow it to be there and not do anything about it.

Allowing negative emotion

Consider thinking these thoughts on purpose to help you feel the feelings all the way through to completion:

  1. This is just an emotion happening in my body.
  2. I am capable of feeling this.
  3. I will be okay. I am okay. I am safe.
  4. This is an opportunity to feel more connected to me; to know myself better.
  5. This is an opportunity to be an example for the people in my life.
  6. I’m doing it the exact way I’m meant to because there is no wrong way to feel.
  7. This will pass. The only emotions that stay are the ones that aren’t processed.
  8. It takes longer not to process emotions. Unprocessed emotions show up in our energy and our behavior and our very specific results and actually make things take longer.


Take it from someone whose “drug of choice” was being overly busy. We can run but we can’t hide, and at some point, the running from the feelings creates a special kind of exhaustion. The options are to process pain now, or process bigger pain later.

It’s a little like lifting weights. It’s a bit uncomfortable, but the end result is worth it.

The worst thing that can happen is a feeling. If there’s nothing you’re unwilling to feel, there is nothing you’re unwilling to do. Processing the pain is the currency to healing and also the path to anything you want to achieve in the future.

Teresa Amaral Beshwate, MPH, The Sudden Widow Coach, helps widows who have experienced the sudden loss of their spouse or significant other learn to live and love their life again. Her coaching program is exclusively for widowed people and offers the perfect mix of private and group coaching along with the most life changing tools for the uniquely challenging widowed journey. 

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