Emotions Cannot Be Canceled: 4 Steps for Working Through Emotions

Unfriend. Unfollow. Unsubscribe. Delete. Cancel.

Canceling has become such a phenomenon that Merriam-Webster added the word cancel culture to the dictionary and updated the definition of canceling in January of last year. What began as a way of trying to culturally boycott something has grown and become a widely used phrase in the English vernacular.

canceling (v): to withdraw one’s support for (someone, such as a celebrity, or something, such as a company) publicly and especially on social media

cancel culture (n): the practice or tendency of engaging in mass canceling as a way of expressing disapproval and exerting social pressure | a way of behaving in which it is common to completely reject and stop supporting someone or something because of something offensive

We live in a cancel culture world. Disagree with someone or something? Easy, just hit the proverbial cancel button and you no longer have to deal with that problem. We curate Instagram or TikTok feeds to our specific likes and interests. We join groups with like-minded individuals. We can even choose the brands that seem to represent what we care about and change our loyalties at any time, but I wonder if the mentality of canceling has seeped into other facets of life.

Does the impact of a cancel culture mindset expand beyond the social media world and go so far as to impact emotional health? What happens if we try to cancel the emotions that we experience? While the intent of this article is not to debate the effectiveness or purpose of canceling, I have been questioning the impact of a cancel culture on mental health. Specifically, I have been questioning if the cancel culture mentality makes it more difficult to work through uncomfortable emotions. It seems like it creates a roadblock for some of the people in my counseling office.

Recently, I sat in my office listening to one of my clients talk about how she just did not want to feel the way she was feeling. She was frustrated with feeling anxious and just wanted it to stop. Isn’t there something you can tell me to do that will just make me stop feeling this way? Essentially, she was asking, “Can’t I just cancel this feeling right now?”

I get what she was trying to communicate. There are times when I wish I could hit the cancel button on an emotion, too. Although she was working to learn different coping strategies, the emotions were still impacting her in ways she did not like. She was feeling uncomfortable and wanted it to stop. Canceling makes that easy, and I started to wonder if the familiarity and ease of canceling was making the uncomfortable emotions she was experiencing even worse. The problem was that as much as she tried, her emotions could not be canceled.

We are created to be thinking and feeling beings. Emotions are part of the human experience. I strongly believe God created emotions for a specific purpose. Sometimes emotions show up at an inopportune time, but they always have a purpose. Emotions are signals to help us recognize what is happening around us; they are meant to connect us to our experiences or to other people. Emotions serve to alert us to things happening in life that require our attention. They motivate our behaviors and at times even protect us. Essentially, the emotion is the messenger to let you know that something is going on in your mind that needs attention. And because of these things, emotions CANNOT be canceled.

There is a reason why you feel the way that you do. Ignoring or suppressing (AKA canceling or cutting off) the emotion means that the emotion is not able to fulfill its purpose. Getting rid of uncomfortable emotions means diminishing our ability to feel other emotions like joy and peace. Sure, there are times when ignoring temporarily seems to make the emotion go away or lessen in intensity, but usually, it gets worse. That ignored emotion is more likely to seep out in other places where you might not want it to show up, and it is also likely that it is more intense.

So then, if we cannot cancel emotions, we need to figure out a different strategy for coping. The way out of an emotion is through the emotion.  Allow me to briefly share four steps to allow emotions to fulfill their purpose.  

The first step is recognizing when an emotion is present. Notice physical sensations or changes in your body that might be signaling that you feel something. Did your breathing speed up or become heavier? Does your chest suddenly feel tight? Do you suddenly feel nauseous? Know what your body feels like at peace and pay attention to any changes that you notice that would indicate a shift in emotions. Bodies often communicate that a feeling is present, and you need to be able to recognize that you are feeling something before you can do anything about it.

The second step is being able to identify what the emotion is. Knowing the specific feeling is an important step for targeting the appropriate response. You know you are feeling something, but what is it specifically? Knowing the specific feeling is an important step for targeting the appropriate response. A feelings wheel can be extremely helpful here. They help to aid in the process of expanding beyond the basic core emotions into more complex ones.

Third, ask what the emotion might be trying to communicate to you. Reflect on what has happened recently that may be causing that emotion to surface. What were you doing? What was happening around you? What were you thinking about? These questions help to identify the purpose of your emotion. This step is about working to accept that the emotion is there for a reason and has a purpose. It is important in this step to allow yourself to feel the emotion without judgement.

Last, figure out what you need when you experience a particular emotion and implement a plan to have that need met. What helps in the moment when you are experiencing a particular emotion? What do you need to do? Do you need time alone, time to cry, self-compassion, or the reassuring presence of someone you love and trust? What about a creative outlet or time to process? When the emotional need is met, the emotion tends to dissipate. The emotion has served its purpose, and you have done your job of responding appropriately to the emotion.

Implementing these steps can be quite a process, but the important first step is recognizing that emotions cannot be canceled. It takes time and intentional work to develop emotional awareness, but the reward is great. People with higher levels of emotional intelligence can respond to stressors and complicated emotions more effectively.

If you find that you are left wanting to cancel your emotions or that it is difficult to implement the steps above, it may mean that finding a counselor could be beneficial.  Developing emotional awareness is a process but does not have to be done alone. A counselor can help to walk you through each step.

It is time to shift the mindset on emotions — from something to be canceled and avoided to something that can help us learn about our environment or ourselves. Are you ready to get started?

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