Feelings: Trash or Transform?: How to Work with Emotions

“Please just make these feelings go away.” Jerald looked up from our game of Sorry! with big blue tear-filled eyes. “I don’t want to be sad anymore. Can’t you tell me how to make it stop?” Jerald, in his seven-year-old wisdom, has articulated the question I get asked the most: how do I get rid of a feeling?

Sometimes emotions fit the present moment situation. Jerald’s parents brought him in for counseling soon after his little sister died and sadness was an appropriate, healthy response. I supported Jerald in his grieving process, forming a healthy template for him to access in the future. Sometimes emotions reveal unresolved issues in the past. Tonya returned to college and experienced test anxiety. As a child Tonya hand-wrote her exams, and a severe case of dyslexia made this a nerve-wracking experience. Although presently she takes tests on a computer, she still had some residual emotions from her childhood experience. She and I worked together to process those emotional remnants and reduce her exam anxiety.

Both Jerald and Tonya also needed some practical tips on how to address emotions in the moment. Jerald began to recognize what triggered his tears (walking by his sister’s class at school), learned to identify clues when tears were coming (his throat would tighten), and then excuse himself to the bathroom for a few minutes. In response to Tonya’s clues that anxiety was building (her palms would sweat), she learned some deep-breathing techniques to regulate her symptoms.

A strong emotional foundation comes from combining practical tips with deeper processing. If Jerald simply went to the bathroom every time he felt like crying and didn’t learn how to process his sadness, he could easily learn that feelings are something to avoid. If Tonya focused all her energy exclusively on deep breathing instead of also working through her childhood experiences, exams would continue to be a struggle.

What if emotions are here to help us? The next time you find yourself wishing you could send your feeling out with the garbage, take a minute to notice if it needs some transformative attention.