How to Feel Everything

Stop thrashing, put your face in the water, and glide.

I just reread an Ask Polly letter that feels like a map to the psychosocial snares of the 2010s. It’s all in there: Navigating childhood as a sensitive kid who’s blamed for everything bad that happens in the family, struggling through life as a young adult without knowing how to seek joy. And once happiness finally arrives, the LW feels so fearful she’ll lose it that she can’t even enjoy it. The letter covers a lot, but I particularly love the part about envying people who appear to be thriving:

This is a classic example of someone who’s trying hard to solve a puzzle instead of feeling their feelings. Sadly, trying very hard to ‘fix’ the problem of jealousy and insecurity usually just leads to more jealousy, more insecurity.

In fact, when your habit is to solve problems intellectually instead of taking a longer, slower path through your deepest emotions, you often become increasingly self-abnegating, avoidant, embarrassed, and anxious as you grow older. This letter shows how the poison of trying to fix things —and beating yourself up when it doesn’t work — starts to leak into everything and cause all kinds of new problems: self-hatred, neuroticism, a marriage in danger, creative blocks, confusion, dismissiveness.

So where do you even start? You start by abandoning the fight against yourself, which often amounts to anxious thrashing and flailing. You surrender to where you are instead:

Anyway, go read it for yourself. You’ve got Pink Floyd, you’ve got Eckhart Tolle — I mean, talk about trusting yourself! What was I thinking? And yet:

This is a pretty groovy column, but I can tell you that, after trying to welcome my feelings without judgment for years now, my experience of the world and the people in it is so much less neurotic and angry than it used to. I’m still a maze of hot wires and combustible engines that throw off smoke and sparks, but I don’t blame myself for the way I’m built as much.

When you don’t stigmatize your weird machinery, you’re more open to delighting in other strange machines, rusty or broken though they might be. To put it in more concrete terms: I have a good relationships with the most important people in my life now, many of whom I used to consider “too difficult” to deal with. In the old days, I felt like an ignored toddler whenever I interacted with people, because I was ruled by anxious need. Now I’m calmer and more curious.

Make no mistake, though. Trying to feel more is an arduous path, especially at first. There are nightmares behind your nightmares. It will humble you.

But the result is joy. Feeling more means feeling more joy. When things get dark, you have to trust that instead of fighting the darkness. It’s all about replacing “Stop!” with “Welcome!” It’s about giving yourself some space to glide and float, knowing that this day, this hour, this moment is enough, and so are you.

Thank you for reading! Ask Polly will be publishing twice a week soon, so…