Showing Up to Emotions With Compassion

By Susan David

No matter what you’re going through, it’s always possible to imagine something worse. Some of us can’t help but be aware of how bad things could be. 

If we’re unhappy at work, we’ll insist on how lucky we are to have a job at all. If a spouse is dismissing our wants and needs, we’ll tell ourselves to be thankful for their good qualities. As long as someone in the world has got it worse—and someone always does—there’s room to chastise yourself for ingratitude.

My research shows that about one-third of people reflexively judge their normal, natural emotions as either good or bad. 

When a new feeling emerges, they try to weigh its morality. Do they have the right to feel the way they do? What should someone in their position feel? The emotions that make the grade can be shared with the world. Those that don’t get suppressed or displaced.

It’s healthy and admirable to be aware of one’s privileges, and we’ve all met people who mistake life’s minor inconveniences for earthshaking tragedies. 

But a sense of perspective is not mutually exclusive from showing up to your feelings

You don’t choose your emotions. We can all think of times that we’d rather have felt differently, yet our emotions stubbornly stayed put. How we feel is how we feel, and it’s not productive to try to parse out whether you ought to feel as you do.

Let’s say you’re feeling unsatisfied at work. You could approach this situation in a couple different ways.

You could try to bury this “wrong” emotion, reminding yourself of the people whose paychecks are smaller or whose labor is more backbreaking. Paradoxically, though, the more one pushes a feeling away, the longer it’s likely to linger. Scolding yourself for ingratitude isn’t going to make your work life any more pleasant. It’s much more likely to add a layer of shame to the problems that were already there.

Conversely, you could take these emotions seriously and consider what’s causing them. Is the work no longer challenging you? Do you feel that your contributions are overlooked? Is your current company out of step with your values? 

Once you’ve honored your feelings and heard to what they can teach you, you can take steps to address the underlying issues.

Adopting the latter strategy doesn’t mean you let yourself be ruled by your emotions. As valid as your job dissatisfaction is, blowing up at your boss is unlikely to improve the situation. 

I often say that feelings are best regarded as data, not directives. And what valuable data they are! Show up for them and they can provide you with the knowledge necessary to move forward into a more fulfilling life.


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