Updated: Jan 8
How Accepting Emotions Can Make Life Easier
Recently I’ve noticed two common, everyday phrases where something is described as “hard.”
“This is so hard!”
The first one, “This is so hard!” is sometimes used to describe some part of the Surrogate Partner Therapy experience. In this context, the client cannot be referring to anything physically strenuous, like “It’s hard to do 50 push-ups,” because nothing like that is ever part of the work. Instead, it is used to describe something that’s new or challenging emotionally.
As a surrogate partner, I am always paying attention to how communication impacts the relationship. Does it build closeness? Does it build intimacy? Does it give me a sense of what my client is going through? Does it help me relate with them?
When someone says, “This is hard,” it doesn’t say anything about their actual experience. I have no idea what’s actually going on for them. All I know is that whatever it is, they consider it to be “hard.” This illustrates the difference between descriptive words and judging words. Descriptive words communicate information about the actual experience. Judging words don’t say anything about the experience itself, but say only how it is evaluated, assessed, judged, or rated.
A way this shows up commonly in everyday communication is when I ask someone, “What are you feeling?” and they respond, “I feel good.” “Good” doesn’t say anything about what they are actually feeling; it only says that whatever they are feeling they assess positively. But since the intention of my question in the first place was to better know them and their experience, the purpose of the question has been left unfulfilled, and I remain curious about their actual experience. Ever persistent, I generally follow up with “And what are you actually feeling that you assess as ‘good’?”
Such assessment is subjective. Different people will assess similar experiences in different ways. Different people describe different experiences as “hard.” For example, one person may describe playing tennis as hard, yet another person may describe that same activity as easy. Some people may describe cooking, meditating, reading, public speaking, talking about themselves, feeling emotions, or paying attention as “hard,” yet other people assess the same activities very differently.
When someone describes an experience as “hard,” I’ve started to ask specifically what it is about that experience that causes them to describe it as “hard.” In other words, “What makes it hard?”
Over the years, I’ve heard many answers to this question, including the following.
● It’s hard because I’m uncomfortable with it.
● It’s hard because it shouldn’t be happening.
● It’s hard because it means there’s something wrong with me.
● It’s hard because I don’t like it.
● It’s hard because I’m afraid I can’t do it.
● It’s hard because it’s unfamiliar.
As in the above examples, most of the answers I’ve heard are not about the experience itself, but rather about how the experience is assessed. If you assess an experience in a way that prevents acceptance, you are more likely to perceive it as “hard.” On the other hand, if you can fully accept an experience, even if you don’t like it, then your assessment loses its power. Then the experience just is what it is. Judging an experience critically actually makes it more difficult. Judgment makes it harder.
For that reason, I’ve found it useful to distinguish between describing an experience and judging it. The table below lists descriptive words and judging words. There are 2 columns of descriptive words. The first column lists words that describe emotional experience and the second column lists words that describe experience in terms of physical sensations.
Emotions Angry Annoyed Irritated Afraid Anxious Happy Excited Confident
Physical Sensations Tired, Calm Cold, warm Constricted Relaxed Tingling Nauseous Sweaty Heavy, Hollow
Hard, Easy Overwhelming, Intense, Excessive, Crazy Extraordinary, Unusual Good, Bad, Better, Worse, Different, Awful Negative, Positive
Surrogate Partner Therapy helps people have more fulfilling and intimate relationships with themselves and others. A big part of intimacy is being seen and accepted for who we are. Expressing an opinion does not result in being seen and accepted, because a judgment/opinion doesn’t say anything about who I am or what I’m experiencing. Even if the other person is of the same opinion, being “agreed with” is not the same as being “seen and accepted.”
Feelings and sensations, on the other hand, come from a deeper, more embodied place. They give more insight into someone’s experience in that moment, and who they are in that experience. As Audre Lorde stated so eloquently, “Our feelings are our most genuine paths to knowledge. They are chaotic, sometimes painful, sometimes contradictory, but they come from deep within us.” A relationship based on expressing feelings and other aspects of moment-to-moment experience is more likely to result in “being seen and accepted” than a relationship based on opinions and judgments.
There’s nothing wrong with using judging words. When we want to communicate an assessment, using judging words is the best way to do so. But if we want to be aware of or communicate our experience, such judgment can get in the way. Western cultures tend to value intellect and devalue emotions. Many of us in industrialized cultures were raised in environments where we were discouraged from feeling and communicating emotions. We were criticized or punished for being “too much,” “too emotional,” irrational, or even hysterical. As a result, many of us have learned to use assessment to minimize our emotions, rather than accepting them in their raw intensity. We do this because it’s more comfortable, but we miss an opportunity to be seen and accepted in our full authenticity when we do.
“No hard feelings!”
The second phrase I’ve heard recently is, “No hard feelings!” Taken literally, it implies that certain feelings are hard. What feelings are hard, and why do we assess a feeling as hard? In other words, if a feeling is hard, what makes it hard?
I believe most people would agree that “hard” feelings are those that are typically described as “negative.” Such “negative” emotions include anger, sadness, even fear. With respect to emotions, “hard” and “negative” are both judgmental in a similar way. They seem to indicate that some emotions should be avoided, and that there’s something “wrong” with certain emotions. If a feeling is “wrong,” then it’s easy to conclude there’s something wrong with me if I’m feeling that emotion. This can result in self-criticism, which can lead to more anger, sadness, and even shame. Judging a feeling as “hard” only makes it harder because it creates even more “hard” feelings. This can become a self-reinforcing cycle.
Viewing emotions as positive or negative causes us to divide them into two categories, those we want to maximize and those we want to minimize. We might then seek to pursue happiness while avoiding sadness and anger. But this simply doesn’t work. As vulnerability researcher Brené Brown points out, “You cannot selectively numb emotion. When we numb [hard feelings], we numb joy, we numb gratitude, we numb happiness.” In other words, our capacity for joy is the same as our capacity for anger. Our capacity for happiness is the same as our capacity for sadness. Letting go of the assessment and directly feeling a full range of emotion allows us to see all of them, even “negative” ones, as gifts. More on that in a future post.
The more you can accept your emotions, the easier it is to be with them, and the easier this quintessential part of the human experience will be. If you can fully accept all your emotions without judging them as “wrong,” “negative,” or “hard,” it will be much easier to be with those feelings when they occur (and it’s guaranteed that they will). The next time you describe something as “hard,” I invite you to move out of judgment and into acceptance. I guarantee your experience will be easier if you do.