It’s Okay to Not Be Okay: The Importance of Admitting and Expressing One’s Painful Emotions in Everyday Life and When Forgiving

A Guest Blog by
Suzanne Freedman, Ph.D.

A recent article in the New York Times discusses the importance of helping teens become comfortable with “uncomfortable emotions,” specifically the importance of helping them accept these feelings as well as express them in this time of great uncertainty and sadness. Written by psychologist Lisa Damour, the article notes that our typical style of helping teens cope with negative emotions is to either downplay such emotions, be cheerleaders to help teens stay positive, and/or encourage them to focus on being as productive as possible. Unfortunately, these methods are not always helpful and can teach teens to bury, ignore, or numb their uncomfortable feelings.  

When I read Damour’s article, I couldn’t help but think of how similar the ideas of “admitting to and bearing the unpleasant feelings” are to the first phase in Dr. Robert Enright’s 20-unit Process Model of forgiveness, The Uncovering Phase. This phase focuses on uncovering negative feelings and thoughts related to one’s hurt and then dealing with the resulting feelings, such as anger, in a healthy way.  

As with psychological health, there are misconceptions of forgiveness and what is involved when forgiving. One of the greatest misconceptions has to do with the role of anger and other negative emotions in the forgiveness process.  Most people incorrectly assume that anger has no role when forgiving. (Freedman & Chang, 2010). This is not true, as recognizing, admitting to and expressing anger is one of the most important processes in the model (Enright, 2001). We cannot forgive until we admit to our anger and deal with it in a healthy way. Anger and sadness are normal and natural emotions when times are tough and after being deeply, personally and unfairly injured by another.

However, it is sometimes easier to deny, suppress, or ignore our pain and uncomfortable emotions, than actually deal with them.  Dealing with our anger and other uncomfortable emotions means recognizing and admitting to them. Doing this takes courage and strength, especially in a society that often encourages sweeping these feelings under the rug. Admitting to these feelings allows us to express and move beyond them, rather than get stuck in them or hold them in until we explode, which can happen if we don’t deal with our anger and other uncomfortable feelings (Enright, 2001).

Teaching and helping teens to pay attention to their feelings and express them in a healthy way means giving them permission to feel sad, anxious, and insecure, when appropriate. We are currently experiencing a very difficult and scary period and validating teens for all their emotions, both positive and negative, is an important step in the development of good psychological health, just as it is an important step in the forgiveness process.

When people experience interpersonal hurts, validating them for their anger and other painful feelings allows them to ultimately move beyond them to consider the decision to forgive. Damour discusses how one’s emotional strength and resilience becomes greater as a result of dealing with difficult experiences and feelings. Coping with emotional pain in a healthy way, after experiencing a deep hurt, also helps individuals face future interpersonal injuries with more strength, as they are building their forgiveness muscle each time they forgive (Enright 2001).

Normalizing, as well as validating painful and uncomfortable feelings by teens and especially by those who have experienced deep hurt, will help them admit to and express these emotions. Doing so will increase their psychological health and confidence in dealing with future painful emotions and experiences. It will also help individuals who are working on the process of forgiveness to make progress in their journey.

According to Damour, helping teenagers understand that psychological health includes both positive and negative feelings will give them a freedom that they may not have experienced before in their emotional development. Forgiveness also leads to a feeling of freedom, as one works through and moves beyond their anger and other negative emotions. 

Helping teens and those who have been hurt recognize and express their painful feelings, will not only show them that they can bear those uncomfortable feelings, but will give them a sense of hope for the future whether they are facing the darkest of times or the darkest of emotions.

References
Damour, L. (2020). Helping Teens Make Room for Uncomfortable Emotions, New York, Times, May 17. 

Enright, R. D. (2001). Forgiveness is a choice: A step-by-step process for resolving anger and restoring hope. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

Freedman, S. & Chang, W. C. (2010). An analysis of a sample of the general population’s understanding of forgiveness: Implications for mental health counselors. Journal of Mental Health Counseling, 32 (1): 5–34.


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About Dr. Suzanne Freedman: A professor of human development at the University of Northern Iowa, Dr. Freedman earned her Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of Delaware and both her Masters Degree and Ph.D. from the University of Wisconsin-Madison where she studied under and conducted research with Dr. Robert Enright. Her dissertation was a landmark study that was published in the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology: Forgiveness as an Intervention Goal with Incest Survivors.

Dr. Freedman’s areas of expertise include the psychology of interpersonal forgiveness, forgiveness education and intervention, moral development, incest and sexual abuse, eating disorders, and early adolescent development. She has presented at numerous national and international conferences on the psychology of interpersonal forgiveness and forgiveness education. At the University of Northern Iowa, she teaches a variety of development courses including the Psychology of Interpersonal Forgiveness. Dr. Freedman can be reached at freedman@uni.edu


More Forgiveness Commentary from Dr. Freedman:


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1 comment

  1. queendjh says:

    I’m attempting to catch-up with my reading today, and I’ve read several news items from your site, but I really like this article by DR. SUZANNE FREEDMAN. I don’t know why it is so hard to admit how we are capable of being hurt. I found it hard to admit that someone would hurt me. The (I) in Pride is a big obstacle. Admitting hurt was hard for me, and along with the people who hurt me, it made admitting and acknowledging even harder. Sometimes I think this may be an issue because I’m an only child. Nevertheless, the article was wonderful, and Dennis, I like the pictures used for people. They are great. Thank you all for the work you are doing and encouraging others to do.

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