Emotional Courage

By Teresa Amaral Beshwate, MPH

It’s a natural instinct to avoid discomfort of any type, including uncomfortable feelings. In our society today, we tend to avoid difficult feelings. Some people overeat, some use alcohol or drugs, others overspend or spend their lives overscheduled. Might each be a band aid, an avoidance strategy, a way to buffer how we’re feeling, perhaps even without our awareness?

The question is whether these strategies really work, or whether they ultimately compound the problem. For example, feeling stressed prompts overeating, which may provide a short-term relief but only moments later there is added guilt, regret and feelings of failure, all of which prompt more overeating. It’s like heaping more bad feelings on top of the original bad feelings, only reinforcing the desire to reach for that strategy-of-choice - a vicious cycle.

When my husband passed unexpectedly, as soon as I was able, I jumped headfirst into work. It was like a vacation for my brain. It took a few years for me to realize that I couldn’t outrun grief, and the more I ran, the bigger it became. It wasn’t until I stopped running that I truly began to face it, feel it and process it. I learned that healing requires feeling.

My widowed friend Sari once told me, “Teresa, it makes you a better person.” To which I replied, “Then where can I sign up to be a lesser person?” (It turns out there is no sign-up sheet.) She made a great point. Have you met a strong person with an easy past? I haven’t.

What if instead we were willing to feel the feelings, without reaching for a strategy? My coach suggests that we simply say, “I am feeling this way, and that’s okay.” She calls it emotional courage. Feelings are neither forever nor fatal. Sometimes we just have to be with our feelings, reminding ourselves that this too shall pass.

When we’re reaching for our avoidance strategy of choice, let’s get curious about how we’re feeling, and whether overspending/overeating/overdrinking/overscheduling/insert-your-strategy-here is really the answer. Maybe instead we can just face those feelings head on, sit with them a while and wait for them to pass.

One of my favorite quotes by author Christina Rasmussen is, “You can do the impossible because you’ve been through the unimaginable.” Any difficult feeling I might experience today simply can’t compare to walking through the darkness of loss. That gives me courage. I bet you can reflect on tough times and say the same for yourself.

Teresa Beshwate