• Our instinct might be to push painful feelings like anxiety, panic, and sadness away

  • Accepting these emotions is key to moving forward, says therapist Wendy Bristow

  • If you want to learn self-compassion and self-acceptance, find a therapist here

‘It’s ridiculous, feeling this way’. ‘I’m just being silly though aren’t I, being cross about this?’ ‘I ought to be happy so why aren’t I?’ ‘I should be over it now so how come I’m not?’

Hearing statements like these on a daily basis makes me think the sum of human misery could be reduced overnight if we all accepted what we feel without judging it.

It’s part of the human condition, of course, for your head and heart to be singing from different hymn sheets. Simultaneously, your heart can ache and your head can wish it would just get on with it. We all have an inner critical voice which probably evolved to tell us to get out of the way of sabre-toothed tigers but, when turned harshly on ourselves, can be toxic.

Why negative self-talk about our feelings is so harmful

If you’re especially self-condemning and struggling with difficult feelings the resulting internal arguments create inner conflict which makes you feel worse. So we panic about having a panic attack, making another panic attack more likely. Or we berate ourselves for feeling low. Given self-criticism is a powerful element in depression, it risks spinning the process out longer or sending it deeper. We might even put off getting support with emotional difficulties because we assume everyone else will judge our feelings as harshly as we do.

No wonder telling ourselves off for what we’re experiencing emotionally is a complicating factor in many mental health conditions like depression and chronic anxiety.

There can be specific flavours to the put-downs. Male clients often bring a macho-flavoured quality to the mix by judging themselves as ‘weak’ if they’re feeling low or anxious. By contrast, women tend to judge anger as wrong and not ‘nice’ and are far more prone to emotional eating or self-harm as a way of stuffing down feelings they wish they didn’t have.

And the generation we call ‘millennials’ often judge themselves for not being happy. As in ‘I’ve got a great job and a lovely boyfriend so why aren’t I happy?’ as though happiness were a given. If you’d asked my father whether his job was making him happy he’d have thought you were mad. But younger clients often worry about it. If you expect to be always up, of course it may seem ‘ridiculous’ or ‘wrong’ if you can’t get over a break-up, a loss or a setback at work. Many things in life are genuinely difficult and no one feels happy or positive all the time.

The power of self-compassion and acceptance

The antidote? Be kinder to yourself and practice the art of acceptance. I know it sounds counter-intuitive but accepting your feelings can actually help ‘negative’ ones pass more quickly. We often fear that ‘giving in’ to a low mood might lead to depression, or allowing ourselves to cry means we’ll never stop. But the kindness towards yourself involved in not judging emotions is part of the attitude that prevents those things.

As Jon Kabat-Zinn, the man who brought the practice of mindfulness into therapy, puts it: “Acceptance is a very active process, there is nothing passive about it. Acceptance doesn’t mean we can’t work to change … but it means that unless we accept things as they are, we will try to force things to be as they are not and that can create an enormous amount of difficulty.”

For some, the very idea of accepting certain feelings brings up intense guilt – whether about something you did in the past or feeling you’re ‘bad’ if, say, you feel hateful towards a parent. Guilt gets in the way of self-acceptance and if you’re feeling it the kindest thing you can do is to accept that some counselling or therapy could help.

Further reading

Meet the therapist: Wendy Bristow

Can painful feelings be helpful?

Anxiety and panic: why keeping them close helps them go away

The neuroscience of emotions

How can I self-regulate my emotions?

This article was originally published as part of welldoing.org's partnership with Health Unlocked