Learning How to Listen to and Tolerate Your Negative Feelings

Traumatic childhoods can cause people to attempt to flee their lives by cultivating and pursuing fantasies, or utopic lives, believing that they’ll make up for all the sorrow and harmonize their existence. But, the fantasies never do, with reality pushing back relentlessly.

Throughout history, utopias were the dreamlands of serenity, wherein their residents remained immune from all forms of physical and emotional suffering. And because so many of us believe that we can’t confront and tolerate our negative emotions, we delusionally attempt to create our own knockoffs. The question I get asked most in my work is, “How can I stop feeling that?” ‘That’ can mean sad, angry, afraid, hurt, or guilty. Fundamentally, the person asking doubts their ability to stand those feelings. And doubts their ability to continue living their lives with them.

So, many of my clients are held captive.

But, can you live with guilt or sadness or anxiety? Better yet, is there anyone who doesn’t carry them? Consider the existential truths of existence: death, isolation, freedom, and lack of meaning. How does any self-aware being not feel immense dread merely by doing so? But, the same goes with everyday feelings. In the past, I’ve written about the inherent harmony of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, meaning the fact that negative emotions aren’t meant to be subdued, because they can’t be. And the purpose of my articles was to present the case that CBT is often poorly represented, implying that some emotions are good and others are bad, and that the bad ones ought to be done away with. Yet, the purpose of the so-called negative emotions is vital, as they work hard to keep you in check.

Imagine being able to just shut off your guilt. Wouldn’t you then misuse that skill? Who wouldn’t just do something unethical and tell themselves that they’ll just remove the resultant guilt this one time? Who wouldn’t remove shame to engage in some completely selfish activity that carries a significant risk of harming others? Thus, psychoanalyst Nancy McWilliams maintains that shame becomes adaptive “by regulating experiences of excessive and inappropriate interest and excitement and by diffusing potentially threatening social behavior.” It works to curb self-absorption and immorality. And when the feelings themselves are inappropriate, when you realize that shouldn’t feel guilty or ashamed, those left over from a critical assessment of your situation (where you inquire about the evidence of whether or not you should feel a so-called negative feeling) symbolize your self-doubt, or humility, reminding you that you aren’t omniscient. In essence, you could be wrong.

However, for some, the negative feelings become excessive and, thus, apparently intolerable. The catastrophic thinking associated with them (e.g. I’ll never stop feeling guilty.) becomes the catalyst for desperate, avoidant behavior. And few emotions are as avoided as shame. When shame is essentialized, and you’re made to feel you’re defective, feeling it can create a cascade of traumatic memories, which suffocate you in a billow of the awareness of your own apparent deformity. So, when reconsidering your mistakes and taming your shame with good reasoning, you’ll never eliminate it permanently. You’ll always, to some extent, be plagued by your self-doubt, both because it’s helpful and because you can’t fully outrun your past.

And that’s you being human.

I still feel guilty when I end a relationship that no longer works for me, because I know I’ve hurt someone. And because I’m still unsure if my choice was right. Our decisions will always entail trade-offs. Thus, for example, guilt reminds us that we care. So, when my clients make difficult choices and still feel some semblance of shame, I ask them if they’re proud of themselves for both the feeling and the choice. The choice indicates their ability to courageously follow through on a sound plan. And the feeling indicates their ability to take responsibility for it.


  1. I invent fantasies in the same way Greek tragedy was used, to examine myself from a detached perspective in order to explore while not inflicting further trauma; a method to reconstruct my soul, which is also why I pick the books I pick. I apologized in April 2021 haha thanks for the double windfall life! When a person suggests they just need to talk about it first, sometimes it is the case. My failure next time round was my hope in humanity. Have a good one, Leon.

    Liked by 1 person

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