Feel the feelings, and then choose your actions

I was sitting next to a child on the plane recently. Our flight had been repeatedly delayed, and after we had finally boarded, we experienced further delays before takeoff. She was becoming increasingly agitated-getting an air sickness bag from the flight attendants, pacing, and talking tearfully with her mother, so I decided to see if I could help her.

I asked her what was wrong, and she said she wasn't nauseous, she was anxious. She said she didn't want to be on the plane, she wanted to be home. I told her I felt the same, and probably most people on the plane did as well. She told me that she was tired of waiting, and again, I agreed that I felt the same. She went through her list of unhappy feelings, and they were all very appropriate feelings- we were in an unpleasant situation, and it's quite understandable to not be happy when your flight is three hours delayed, with no clarity regarding when we would actually get home. She said she thought the plane should be turned around. She said she felt like she couldn't bear how frustrated she felt, and like she had to have relief right now. 

After she told me all of her feelings, and felt like I really understood how bad she felt, we were able to have a really rich conversation about how hard it was to tolerate how bad she felt. She felt like her pain had to be resolved immediately. She couldn't name what would happen if it wasn't resolved, but it felt quite urgent to her, and her anxiety was overwhelming.

So we talked about how it felt unpleasant and inconvenient and uncomfortable for many people on the plane. We talked about how it felt like this misery would last forever, but that it would pass soon enough, and that she would barely be able to remember this miserable feeling tomorrow. We explored if there was anything to be done (if the plane were turned around, she'd just have to go through this process again with a later flight, and many people would be very inconvenienced, including her). Since there was nothing we could do to change the current situation, we decided to talk about other things to pass the time until we were in the air on the way home. We talked about her dance competition, looked at YouTube videos, and chatted with her mother. Soon enough, we were in the air, and she fell asleep almost immediately and slept through the entire flight. Sure enough, when we landed, she barely could remember how bad she had felt before the plane took off.

I tell you this story because I think our experience on the plane is a great example of a common experience. We all have unpleasant feelings, and they probably happen more frequently and more unpredictably than we would like. My flight companion imagined a smooth and quick flight home. She was tired and craving the comforts of home, and probably had already planned out her peaceful evening at home. But sometimes life doesn't match up with our plans. I'd guess you can remember similarly frustrating or painful experiences that have happened to you in the past week. Life can be filled with ups and downs, and our feelings often are similarly volatile. 

When these challenges present themselves, tell yourself the full truth about how you feel, even if it seems unreasonable. For example, you can think "All these cars on the road need to get out of my way! I'm tired of traffic and I'm in a rush! I wish I could drive over all the cars so I could get home." Or "that other person won the prize/deal/promotion that I had really wanted for myself. It's not fair and it should have been mine!"  Your thoughts and feelings do not cause harm, and often just giving yourself permission to feel whatever you feel can release some of the tension. 

Try to be totally free in your mind to think or feel whatever you want.  Treat your thoughts and feelings as really important.  Listen to yourself thoughtfully and compassionately ("Oh, that line was too long and the people in front of you were rude? I'm so sorry that happened to you!" or "Your spouse was short-tempered with you when you needed a hug? That must have been hard!") Do not cut yourself off or talk yourself out of your feelings. Your feelings do not require action, so just try to notice them with interest and care.

Eventually you will notice that you're starting to repeat yourself, or that you have nothing new to say, or even that you are tired of thinking these thoughts.  At that point, you can take a deep breath, and make a choice about what to do next. Just because you feel a certain way doesn't mean you have to act upon it. You might feel hurt, angry, stressed, jealous, or sad. You might want to punch someone in the nose or run away crying. Those are all perfectly fine feelings and desires--but by acknowledging the feeling, you have the freedom to decide if you want to act on it.  And remember--feelings and situations often feel permanent, but often are temporary, so often, the only action required is to wait for it to pass and try to be as calm and patient as you can while you wait.

Quite often, when we give ourselves a little compassion and space to experience our feelings, we decide that the best choice is not to act on our feelings. It might be to take a deep breath; it might be to walk away from a conflictual situation, or to ask for some support from a friend or colleague. You may choose to let someone know that their actions have caused you pain or ask them to clarify the meaning behind their actions towards you. Or you may choose to just wait for the feeling and/or situation to pass, as my traveling companion and I did. If you do decide not to take action at this time, you may choose to explore ways to help provide comfort while you wait-perhaps a nap, deep breathing, chatting with a friend, watching a favorite show or exercising. 

If you do try this process, be patient with yourself. It can be difficult to be compassionate and curious while you're in distress.  After the situation has passed, you can reflect on what worked and what didn't work for you, and how you might modify your approach in future events. I look forward to hearing how it works for you.