The Willingness to Feel better
Whether we feel weary, overwhelmed, overburdened, heartbroken, or unsettled, there is always way to feel better, though it first begins with willingness.
cats and buddhists
"It's not the fact that he wouldn't listen to my suggestions, it's the fact that he resisted solving his problems to feel better. It's like he would purposefully continue suffering, making it harder on himself."
I shared these words with my therapist as I was reflecting on a relationship that had ended. I was venting about some of the things that drove me crazy about my ex-partner. Almost as a way of solidifying my decision, but also as a way of processing the grief.
"He didn't have the willingness to feel better," my therapist reflected. "YES! That's it!" I exclaimed. "He didn't have the willingness to feel better!" My therapist smiled as she continued, "The willingness to feel better." She paused. "For you, Lizz, you could write a whole book about it."
In that moment, the clarity set in. I had worked tirelessly over years in therapy, working with coaches, reading self-help books, and completing e-courses all for the same basic goal: to feel better.
Why is it that for me, I found the willingness to feel better so foundational to life, and yet for some it seemed they would rather struggle in their discomfort than alleviate it?
I liken myself to a cat. I do, after all, have two of them. I often notice how quickly and reliably my cats find the most comfortable spot to lay, snuggle, and nap. They are experts in the willingness to feel better.
Their inherent instinct, whether by domestication or evolution, is to find comfort, to seek warmth. To wholeheartedly give themselves into a life of ease.
As such, there are times I admire my cats, if not envy them. As humans, we too seem to share this common desire to be comfortable and safe, to be at ease, and yet we are also taught "no pain, no gain." Among Western culture, we work, we produce, we squeeze as much into the day as we can. Our stress levels keep rising while we keep trudging on. What doesn't kill us makes us stronger, right?
This kind of mock-resilience does not appeal to me. In fact, if I'm honest, it drives me bonkers.
In Buddhism, the concept of pain or suffering is central to its teachings. The 1st noble truth is: there is suffering. Buddhism explains that suffering is created when we resist pain or when we crave or cling to pleasure.
When I look at my cats as they lick themselves clean in one of many comfy chair spots, I can't help but notice: they do not appear to be suffering. They relish in the pleasure of rest. They seek out day after day the comfort of a small fur rug, a weighted blanket, or colorful quilt. Sometimes they spend 20 minutes here or there staring out the window at the birds. "Wasting the day away," as it were. Are they clinging to pleasure? Are they avoiding pain? I don't think so.
Buddhism goes on to teach that there is a pathway to the end of suffering. The pathway includes making the right amount of effort (not too much, not too little), holding an intention of love and compassion, doing work that is meaningful and causes no harm to self and others, and staying wakeful and present to what is happening in the moment, among other wisdom found in The Eightfold Path.
What then do cats and Buddhists have in common?
self-care is self-compassion
Self-care is an act of rebellion in a busy world. It is the ability to cultivate kindness towards ourselves. When we are kind, we seek to take care of ourselves in the face of difficult moments with thoughtful, loving actions.
When we resist our pain, by denying or ignoring, we suffer more. If we do nothing to address our pain, it will magnify, manifesting in our life at the most inopportune moments. The antithesis of resistance is compassion.
Compassion for self is the core tenant to self-love and self-care. Much like a loving parent would offer care to a hurt child, bandaging up their boo-boos and wiping away tears, self-compassion soothes our soul in a way that says "your pain is valid and I care about you."
When we take loving action for ourselves through self-care, we are participating in "wiping the tears" and "applying the bandages" to our inner (and outter) wounds. We are offering our inner child a moment of respite where she can feel cared for and validated. This act of kindness alleviates the suffering and we feel better. The negative emotions begin to subside. Our body can relax and a more peaceful state arises.
the willingness to feel better
In each given moment, there is a choice we make related to any struggle. We can push forward, staying the same course, and feeling the same way. Or, alternatively, we can opt a different path that is easier to traverse, one that leads to feeling a little better, with more ease.
When I see others who value staying in pain, it reminds me of a wounded animal cowering in the corner, licking its wounds, but refusing to allow anyone to come close. Those that struggle with the willingness to feel better may actually be functioning out of fear. Fear that what is available to help them feel better will actually somehow make it worse. Will harm them in some way. The result is that we stay in a state of mediocrity, or a situation that hurts "only a little," for fear of it hurting much worse.
It doesn't take much to see where this may lead. When a broken bone cannot mend and heal in the proper position, the bone becomes an ongoing impediment. Similarly, when fear is the guidepost for our decisions, even unconsciously, we are likely doomed to continue to suffer more and for a longer period of time. Avoiding the willingness to feel better, we may stay in harmful situations long enough to experience irreparable damage.
The willingness to feel better, however, is the desire to make peace with our pain so that something better can take it's place. The desire to feel better goes back to our most basic needs to be safe, free from harm, and able to survive. We all want to feel better at our core, even if we struggle to allow ourselves the ease.
how NOT to feel better
I was on a long road trip during the early pandemic, visiting National Parks across the country. One of my favorite parks, Joshua Tree, is hot, dry, and very sunny. Even in late May, Joshua Tree could reach over a hundred degrees during the day, though cooling down to below 50 degrees at night. Despite it's fluctuations, I was on this trip with my ex-partner who loved to be physically challenged, hiking long distance with steep elevation gains. I was on a mission to keep up with his aspirations to be active while traipsing about the desert scenery.
On our second day of hiking, we had plotted out to complete a 7.5 mile hike in a remote area of the park called "Lost Palms Oasis Trail." If you look up this trail on Youtube, any experienced hikers will tell you this is not a good trail to do in the summer or if planning your hike, start very early before it gets too hot. We had not done our research. I repeat: WE HAD NOT DONE OUR RESEARCH.
We began the hike at 1 pm. It was 102 degrees out. On the way in, there was a sign that says "Warning! Danger!" and describes that each hiker needs to have at least TWO GALLONS of water, per person. My partner scoffed it off "Oh, it's fine, it's only 7 and 1/2 miles." We had each brought 2 liters of water. I was concerned, needless to say. After a few minutes of discussion, allowing my partner to convince me, we trudged on.
It was a beautiful hike, I will admit. But the temperature so hot and the air so dry, I did not get to enjoy it very much. There was almost no shade on the entire hike, so any sight of a little tree or bush, I would collapse, trying to catch my breath and cool down. I was SO thirsty. My body couldn't regulate as sweat would just near instantly dry up.
On our last 2 miles back, we completely ran out of water. I was panicked. I had never been so tired while hiking before. IT WAS SO. DAMN. HOT. My partner seemed unbothered. He insisted, "I'm fine." "We'll be fine." It did NOT feel fine! One foot in front of the other, slowly but surely, we made it back. In the parking lot, I turned the car on and blasted the A/C as we began drinking cold water from the cooler. The temperature gauge read "108 degrees" outside.
It was then that it occurred to me: we literally could have died. Meanwhile my partner insisted it wasn't that big of a deal. I certainly had a desire to feel better. It did need seem he shared the same desire. And the end result could have been catastrophic for us both simply because there was no priority to feel ease and safety amid the present conditions.
When one is more committed to ignoring, dismissing, and shoving down their own discomfort, they do not have the willingness to feel better. In fact, they are rather showing a commitment to suffering. For some (or many) this can be a trauma response, or a conditioned pattern of adaptation, learned by a past experience of ongoing pain, discomfort, fear, or exposure to trauma. This takes time and healing (often with a professional) to overcome this adaptation and begin to meet oneself with more genuine care and self-compassion. Which requires, you guessed it, the willingness to feel better.
There were days, weeks, months, and even years of my life where I thought I was making myself feel better. I would have a stressful day, feeling overwhelmed by my emotions, I would stop by a local bar or brewery and grab a drink, or two. Very quickly, I would feel better. It worked like magic.
On the weekends or in the evenings before bed, I would melt into my sheets after taking a couple of hits from my cannabis pipe, fully relaxing so that I could rest, watch tv, and fall asleep, anesthetized from reality. I thought I was doing myself a favor. I convinced myself it was okay, I just needed a little help coping with the stress of grad school, the pressure to pay my bills, the sadness of dealing with my Dad's death.
The problem with my solution to my pain was that it had negative consequences, although I was unaware at the time. I knew that when I used substances, it made me feel better, temporarily. What I didn't fully understand or accept was that I was cheating the system. And when you cheat the system long enough, you will get caught. Or rather, it will catch up to you in the form of consequences.
In "The Map of Consciousness Explained," Dr. David Hawkins writes of using substances "In the beginning, it works. If that were not true, no one would do it. But the relief is only for a moment or so. We operate on memory, so it takes a while to realize it is not working. But, over time, because it is an artificial induced experience of happiness, it has created an equal and opposite indebtedness. The universe knows when it has been cheated. The pain or discomfort or restlessness was merely postponed not resolved."
The truth is, there is often a fine line between what is making us feel better and what is actually resisting our feelings. Remember, suffering occurs when we resist or run from pain. Substances (including food) or behaviors (sex, shopping, social media scrolling) that numb us from feelings rather than work through them is a way to suffer more, not less. It is up to each of us to face the reality of our habits and vices, to see them for what they are: attempts to feel better. We are all trying to be our best selves, function as best we can. Your attempts to feel better may be pure but the method matters. If the method is unhelpful, perhaps we need help cultivating the willingness to feel better.
how to cultivate the willingness to feel better
- Wake up. Awaken to what is happening in your body, what is happening INSIDE. Wake up to the present moment, being aware of WHAT IS HAPPENING in the here and now. The author, speaker, and psychotherapist Marshall Rosenberg offers the suggestion, ask yourself, "What's alive for me right now?" Aliveness, as he teaches, includes both the quality of feelings and the state of our needs being met. Essentially, what's alive in us is our truth in the moment. Wake up to notice your truth in the moment. Are you hungry, tired, anxious, frustrated? What need(s) are or are not being met in the present moment? Are you needing social support? Needing to feel competent? Needing a moment of rest?
- Acknowledge & listen. We can cultivate the willingness to feel better by being honest, first with ourselves, and acknowledge how we are feeling or what we are needing. Sometime the most simple act of acknowledging that which is can instantly make us feel better, even if modestly. Acknowledging does not equate to acceptance or agreement, nor does it automatically lead to action, but it does bring us face to face with the reality of what is. Acknowledgement leads to truth, and truth to wisdom. Then, we must listen to what is needed. Listen to it as if it were the most important text you will receive today. Listen as if this were the phone call you have been waiting for days to receive. Listen to your needs and feelings with the same attention you would give your boss or family member's request. Would you shut off or ignore this important communication? Or would you make note or in many cases take immediate action? When we learn to give weight to what is alive within us, when we learn to value our intuition and needs, we listen deeply to the quiet internal requests our body and soul are whispering to us.
- Recognize Responsibility. When we are feeling anything less than joy and peace, no one else is responsible for making us feel better. This is true even if we are feeling hurt, betrayed, heartbroken, or sad in response to another persons harmful actions. Sometimes we can inadvertently place the responsibility on others, staying unhappy or uncomfortable until someone else says what we want to hear or acts in the way we desire. Also, there might be temptation to misdirect our anger, frustration, or irritation at others, an indirect way to avoid managing our own feelings. The solution is to accept full responsibility for how you feel. The only person who can and will truly make you feel better is yourself.
- Inquire: how can I feel a little better right now? This step is simplistic and effective. If you can genuinely ask yourself this question, with curiosity, with the intention of feeling just a little better you are already halfway there. The goal is not to completely expunge any discomfort, pain, or difficult emotion. The point is to see where you can suffer just a little less. Suffering a little less is enough. If this is difficult for you to do, ask yourself "If I truly loved myself, what would I do to feel a little better right now?"
- Take loving action for yourself, beginning with self-compassion. The Zen Buddhist Master Thich Nacht Hahn teaches " The work of mindfulness is first to recognize and then to embrace the suffering with gentleness and compassion. You make use of your mindful breathing to do this. As you breathe in, you say silently, Hello, my pain. As you breathe out, you say, I am here for you." This first step to taking action is regulating and calming simply by meeting our feelings with kindness and care. From there, we can take more specific actions, even small simple steps to feel better. Take off your bra. Making a cup of tea. Stretch for 5 minutes. It doesn't always have to be a grand gesture to impact how we feel. Incremental improvements add up over time.
One day I was feeling listless, drained, and discontent. This was manifesting as boredom, loneliness, and a lack of motivation. I couldn't find anything to "do" nor did I really feel doing anything anyway. Once I realized I was feeling "blah," I took note of how sluggish and tired I felt, how there was a lack of vitality in my body. I then consciously, even to myself, acknowledged that I was feeling "blah." I even placed my hand over my heart space, showing a tenderness for this state of discomfort.
Once I had discovered how I was feeling, I wondered what it was that was really bothering me. And perhaps what it was that I was really needing. Do I need to get outside and take a hike? Do I need to self-soothe with a hot bath? Do I need to do something small yet productive that would boost my sense of self-efficacy and accomplishment today? Do I need a hug or some time talking with a loved one? Do I need to get out of my own head and do something kind for others?
This is often the most difficult part of feeling better: deciding and then taking action in the way that will best work to alleviate our suffering. What I have learned over the years as a self-care enthusiast, there is rarely a "fail." Meaning, taking any of the actions above does indeed help me to feel better. Sometimes I have to do more than one thing. Sometimes I can do 4 things and still not feel 100% better, and that is okay too. Because it is the consistent act of attempting to make ourselves feel better that builds resilience over time.
There are many ways to feel better. One of the most reliable self-care tools I use and recommend is Emotional Freedom Techniques, or EFT (Tapping). When done correctly, it is a go-to simple and fast way to feel your feelings, bring yourself compassion, and apply self-acupressure to alleviate the intensity of your negative experiences, almost instantly making you feel a bit better.
In my experience, both working with clients and doing my own work, EFT Tapping is like cleaning and bandaging a fresh wound. It also can be used to apply more reconstruction of old wounds that keep festering or breaking open, causing ongoing pain. And just like any other self-care, when used regularly, many find that they bounce back more quickly from stress or difficulty, even becoming less reactive and affected by triggers over time.
If you want to learn more about EFT, you can read this post here. As a Certified Accredited EFT Practitioner, I help my clients learn to use EFT effectively. If you want to learn how to feel better using EFT, you may book a free 30 Minute Consultation here.
References & resources
1. Hahn, Thich Nhat."Why We Shouldn't Be Afraid to Suffer." Tricycle: Buddhist Review, June 28th, 2007. https://tricycle.org/trikedaily/thich-nhat-hanh-suffering/
2. Hawkins, David R. "Map of Consciousness Explained." 2006.
3. Weiner, Craig & Alina Frank. "What is EFT?". EFT Tapping Training Institute, 2019. https://www.efttappingtraining.com/eft-article/what-is-eft/