Dr. Joan Rosenberg – Psychologist
I’m 19 years old. I’m a camp counselor to northern Minnesota summer camp, and I’m on a hayride. It’s a beautiful night, and I’m listening in to the conversation next to me, trying to figure out how to break in, just keeping kind of to myself, not sure where it was going, how I could break in.
And just as we’re about to turn into the girls camp to the boys camp, which is where we were headed, one of the counselors turns to me, looks at me and elbows me in the ribs and says, “Hey, Joan, you know what? You’re boring.”
“Whoa! Boring? What?”
It felt like she took a fork, stabbed it in my gut and just spun it around. Now, most of us have our own versions of those gut-punch moments. I’m not sure what it is for you, but that was a big moment for me.
And that moment and a few other key life experiences really sparked my interest to become a psychologist and to understand what it was that really helps someone develop self-esteem and self-confidence. Across 35 years of research, tens of thousands of hours of counseling other individuals and teaching and supervising, there was one element that I remained captivated by and still am to this day, and it’s unpleasant feelings.
Unpleasant feelings. More than anything else, what I found is what holds people back is their inability or their challenges with dealing with unpleasant feelings. Yet, nobody really teaches us what to do or how to handle them.
It seems so silly, so silly: I’m excited about unpleasant feelings. Who the heck gets excited about unpleasant feelings? If you can experience and move through eight unpleasant feelings, you can pursue anything you want in life. How? One choice, 8 feelings, 90 seconds. It’s a simple formula, and it’s one my colleagues and clients affectionately call the Rosenberg reset.
Now, most of us believe that our happiness in life comes from the big choices that we make. And it’s actually not the big choices. There’s a real misconception there. It’s the moment-to-moment choices. Those big choices we think help us determine the degree of our happiness from a day-to-day basis, or our well-being from a day-to-day basis. Not true.
It’s actually the little choices, the moment-to-moment ones. Ponder the moments that you have denied your feelings as opposed to pay attention to them. It’s those that matter. That’s what’s going to free you up. So, let’s unpack the formula.
One choice: Make the choice to stay present, fully present. Be aware of and in touch with your moment-to-moment experience. It’s about awareness, not avoidance. Think of a time that you’ve had a conversation with somebody. Perhaps you’ve been disappointed in a conversation with your friend, or with your partner, or your spouse. And check in with yourself here. Be gentle. Did you do what most of us do? Did you run? Did you hide? Did you shut down? Did you distract in really obvious ways, like, I don’t know, food? Alcohol or drugs? Sex? Pornography? Shopping? Social media? Did you distract or escape in less obvious ways, like tightening up, tightening those muscles, or holding your breath, or swallowing hard, just to try to keep those feelings at bay? Or did you stay fully present, aware of and in touch with your moment-to-moment experience? That’s the best choice, except it’s your choice. You make that one.
My prescription: stay present, stay fully present. You can do this. In fact, we can all do this. It just takes a willingness, it takes a formula and it takes a decision. Let’s go to the second step. The second step has to do with dealing with eight unpleasant feelings. They’re the unpleasant feelings of sadness, shame, helplessness, anger, vulnerability, embarrassment, disappointment and frustration.
Now, most of us like to see those feelings as bad or negative. They’re not bad or negative. They’re simply unpleasant and uncomfortable. So, going forward, can we make an agreement that you’re going to shift your language and it’s no longer going to be bad or negative feelings? They’re simply going to be unpleasant and uncomfortable.
It’s an important shift. Why then do we want to avoid all those feelings? Well, we’re afraid that, if they start, they’ll never stop, or they’ll be too intense and they will overwhelm us, or we will lose control or we’ll go out of control. Except the key here is why they’re also so important. Why does it matter so much? And it matters because our experience of feeling capable in the world, of experiencing emotional strength, is directly tied to our capacity to both experience and move through those unpleasant feelings. Is it all eight at once? No, it’s not.
It’s one or a few at a time. Like, we can feel disappointment and anger at the same time. So, again, if you can experience and move through those eight unpleasant feelings of sadness, shame, helplessness, anger, vulnerability, embarrassment, disappointment and frustration, then you will experience growing confidence and emotional strength.
And what do I mean by this “move through”? Well, neuroscientists suggest that, when an emotional feeling gets triggered, chemicals are released by our brain that flush through our blood stream and they activate bodily sensations. It’s sort of a biochemical rush, and then flush.
Let me translate. And this is super important. What we feel emotionally is felt in the body first, as a bodily or physical sensation. It doesn’t feel good. Let me repeat that. What we feel emotionally is experienced in the body first, as a bodily or physical sensation. That’s what we want to distract from! That’s what we want to get away from. It’s not that we don’t want to feel something emotionally. We absolutely do want to feel emotionally! We want the whole range of feelings. We just don’t want the bodily sensations that let us know what we’re feeling.
What unpleasant feelings might you be moving away from? What might be holding you back? Stop and notice where you might experience it in your body. And – And if there’s a time where you ever said to yourself, “I never want to experience that again,” it’s probably some of those – Those feelings are ones to move towards, to start to embrace. For me, it was involved with that gut-punch. Embarrassment was really difficult. So was disappointment, and so was vulnerability.
But let’s get to the solution. The solution has to do with riding the wave. Remember that biochemical rush I mentioned a few moments ago? That biochemical rush we can think of as a wave, and, when that wave gets fired off in the body, it lasts roughly 60 to 90 seconds, which means feelings are temporary. So, from the time it gets fired off in the brain and it goes through our blood stream and then dissipates: 60 to 90 seconds. You can handle 60 to 90 seconds, right? Heck! That’s less than half a song! All of us can do that.
And if you think of a beach – Let me draw a parallel: If you think of a beach, then, as you walk along that shoreline, what you’ll notice is that the waves can come up to tumultuously, they can come up moderately, they can come up mildly. And, if we’re walking along that shoreline, we’ll notice that the waves seem to just hang and linger for a moment, before they subside. And you know what? That’s also true for our feelings. They can come up tumultuously, moderately, mildly, and they seem to linger or hang for a moment, and then, they always subside. That’s the beauty of it. “Always subside” Is it one wave? No, it’s not. It’s more than one wave.
Any time we think about the same memory, it’s going to fire off that same approximate wave. And grief? Grief is waves of waves, the feelings of anger, and sadness, and disappointment kind of all mixed together. Anybody who’s experienced a significant loss knows this. Those waves can come up so tumultuously and unexpectedly or spontaneously, and it’s like we’re just kind of left with them, and they will always subside. So, the thing again here for you to do is to stay present to the experience, surf those ninety-second waves, surf them any way you want, and just let them ride out their course. In the moment, you’ll feel centered, you’ll feel calm and you’ll feel relief. Insights will follow.
And, with consistent practice, you may even be able to unhook from old-life stories. I have been the joyful recipient of countless stories of individuals who have mended relationships, who have engaged in courageous conversations, who have pursued goals that they wanted to pursue. And the most important one I think is when people come back and tell me that they feel so much more comfortable in their own skin. That’s the benefit I thought when I was called boring was a low moment in my life.
It turns out that moment shifted me, and it’s enabled me to shift countless thousands of lives. So, the next time you experience unpleasant feelings, embrace them, join me in the excitement, know that they are the path back to you being more fully you. Stay present. Stay fully present. Experience them.
Surf those waves. It won’t take years. It won’t even take a day. In fact, it will take just a moment. Start right now.