SEL Skills Articles

Processing Feelings: Why Facing Tough Stuff Hurts and Helps


Several recent situations keep bringing the topic of processing feelings to my attention. One of them was an exchange of FB messages I recently had with Liam (name changed to protect his privacy). Liam is the son of long-time family friends. He’s in his late 20s. I’ve known him since the day he was born; he’s practically family.

Liam recently lost a close friend and beloved step-mother to addiction. A while back, I shared Derek’s story; a colleague whose life story was interrupted –and eventually shattered– by addiction. (If you haven’t read Derek’s plea, please take a few minutes to read it now. Click here.) On New Year’s Day, Liam discovered Derek’s story on our website.

Liam was grateful for Derek’s insight and wisdom, but was wrestling with the impact Derek’s story was having on him. Was it hurting? Was it helping?

Ultimately, Liam was struggling with processing feelings surrounding a significant source of pain and grief in his life. As humans, we are extremely emotional creatures.

Yet, we are not born with a natural ability to manage feelings. Nor are we taught anything about how to handle or process them. Usually, we’re only taught to squelch them. To feel guilty about them. To ignore them.

But all of those options are extremely damaging. 

Below is Liam’s message and my response…

Message from Liam

January 1, 2018

Hey Sue,

So I kind of got lost in your website… and stumbled upon Derek’s story. That hit me so hard. I cried the whole time.

I’ve known more addicts than I’d like to and I’ve never heard anyone describe addiction so well. Derek saw every mistake he was making and that made no difference. It breaks my heart.

I’ve been extremely emotional this year because of how much I’ve lost recently and finding his story just didn’t seem like an accident. I don’t know if it helped me or hurt me, but either way it affected me. And I just wanted to thank you for sharing and reaching out to someone I love, when I’m going through this grief, because I know you understand. It’s been a rough year and I’m excited that the new year has started. So, this is me trying to start it right. Thank you for sharing (Derek’s story) and thank you Derek, for going through it so someone else can learn from your mistake. RIP.

Love you, Sue. Tell your family I wish them happy holidays.

My Response

Hi Liam,

Thank you for reaching out to share your reaction to Derek’s Article. I’m glad it touched you. Yet, at the same time, I’m very sorry for the situations and circumstances that make it so meaningful.

First, I have to ask… are you ok? Do you need any kind of help? Even if you might not be sure what kind…? Please know you can safely ask me. I may not know answers or resources, but I can find them. Most importantly, I can simply “be here.”

Secondly, about your statement that you’re not sure if the article about Derek “helped you or hurt you but it definitely impacted you…” I will say this… it most likely did both.

It hurt you. It hurt to read it. It highlighted realities that are ugly and gnarly and easier to avoid thinking about. Especially since our society does not teach us how to handle or process feelings. (Because we think “arithmetic” is a far more valuable life skill…)

The vast majority of people are completely ignorant of how to handle and process feelings. So, they don’t. But, unprocessed feelings don’t go away. They bury themselves deep in our psyches. Then, they fester. And usually manifest as some kind of physical illness. I believe (based on a lot of research and my personal experience of being cured of two “incurable diseases” -Lupus and Rheumatoid Arthritis) that 80-95% of all chronic illnesses are due to unprocessed feelings.

But, this is why I believe Derek’s insight will ultimately help you. Because he put words to something that nobody wants to talk about. And when you can wrap something in words, it becomes digestible. And when you can digest it, you can process it. And when you can process it, you can let it go. Your tears are the physical manifestation of the painful stuff leaving you, of you letting it go and it letting you go.

You have to face the ugly stuff to ever reach the other side of healing from it. That journey of facing the ugly stuff is a different path for each person. And it will come and go, as life throws us new curveballs. But, it is a journey that none of us can avoid. So, ultimately, it’s healthier to face it. And the earlier/sooner you do, the shorter the process typically is. So, I’m very glad you managed to find Derek’s words. It will ultimately be a valuable resource for getting to the better place.

I admire your desire to improve yourself and to make 2018 better than ever! This process will hurt sometimes, but lean into that processing (rather than avoid it) and know that it will take you to a better place… so long as you bring the right people and resources (especially prayer and faith in God) into that process. (Or, at minimum, be sure to keep the wrong people out of this process. Most people won’t get it, so you must be selective about who you include in this journey.)

I would love to continue this discussion via messages or in person for lunch or coffee sometime, as your soul stirs you… just let me know.

Finally, thank you for trusting me enough to share your thoughts and reaction to Derek’s words. And for listening to Derek. You have vindicated that his life story was ultimately one of victory… that in his suffering, he could lift up and encourage others.

Love you, Liam!

P.S. Are you an educator looking to teach your students how to manage feelings?  Sign up for our “How Do I Feel?” Curriculum Kit, that includes our complete module on feelings in the blue box on the right of this page.

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