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Our Greatest Fear

Our Greatest Fear

Giving Yourself Permission to Feel


It seems that what people fear more than anything is not crime, illness or even death. The greatest fear is their own feelings, especially the "big three": loneliness, helplessness and insignificance. Although we all feel them at times, few people know how to cope with their presence. As children, these feelings seemed scary because we identified with them; they represented our reality, our very identity. They seemed enormously important. We talked about them for hours with anyone who would listen. We had no idea what else to do with what seemed like intolerable pain. No one told us that it was okay to simply feel them. Rather, we may have been ridiculed as immature.

We are programmed to think that to feel anything other than happy, confident and successful means that we must be lacking in faith or suffering from an emotional disorder. The drug companies capitalize on the fear of "bad" feelings by telling us that if they are not eliminated, terrible things will happen to us. So we tend to think of bad feelings as monsters that can kidnap us at any moment and plunge us into insanity and despair as we wait helplessly for some drug, event or person to pull us out of the pits.

Most of us learned to valiantly stifle feelings, put on a happy face and act as if "It doesn't hurt," when we flunked a test, were ridiculed by a teacher, ignored by a parent or snubbed by a peer. But these things hurt. If we could not share our feelings and receive validation, we might have felt we were crazy or stupid for not knowing how to be "cool" like the more popular, cynical types who seemed not to be burdened with intense feelings. No wonder people try to numb feelings with drugs or addictions!

However, there is a better way. Emotional multi-tasking means giving yourself permission to feel, without shame or guilt, and identify what messages the painful feelings have come to give you. We all experience endless losses, frustrations and disappointments. We will all feel betrayed, lonely, abused, insulted, abandoned and cheated. Only criminals are lacking in feelings. Inevitably, we will burn with rage, be crazed with grief or feel shriveled by rejection and failure. While we are supposed to feel joy about our ability to perform mitzvot, this is not to deny our heartbreak. This is called emotional multi-tasking.

Emotional multi-tasking means that we give ourselves permission to feel, without shame or guilt, and identify what messages the painful feelings have come to give us. Once we figure out the message, we can just let the feelings be and continue to function to the best of our ability, with the pain.

It is important to think of an e-motion as energy in motion. Emotions are meant to move us: to connect to G‑d, to take protective action, do something creative or communicate with someone caring. For example, if someone insults you, it won't help to tell yourself, "Don't feel." The hurt is your emotional reality. However, you can choose to: a) shrug it off as insignificant, b) let the person know that you feel hurt, or c) keep a protective distance while allowing yourself to feel the pain of a lost relationship. Or, let's say you feel exhausted. After acknowledging the feeling, ask: "Can I push myself a bit more? Am I merely bored and need to get involved in some stimulating activity? Or do I really need to sleep?" Don't argue with feelings; do look at where they are taking you.

If a child says, "I hate my teacher," it won't help to say, "You're not allowed to hate." His feelings won't change; he now feels ashamed or angry that he cannot share, making him feel isolated and rejected on top of the hurt he is already feeling. What he needs is validation and compassion. By learning to multi-task, we build tolerance for the painful feelings which dwell within us. We can trust that the intensity will rise and fall on its own, without any intervention on our part, if we keep our beliefs and behaviors positive! Children cannot do this "juggling act." But you can! I call it the DVI approach:

A. DEFINE: "Yes, I feel scared, hurt, lonely, rejected, betrayed, stifled, frustrated, etc."

B. VALIDATE: "I am not bad or crazy. It is normal to feel this way at such times. I have a right to feel hurt. I will 'hold' the pain for as long as it wants to be held, like a hurt child, without judgment and without fear or shame."

C. INSPIRE WITH COURAGEOUS ACTION OR FAITH: "I will use the pain as an impetus to action, such as music, art, studying Torah or doing acts of kindness or will focus on developing my spiritual powers - humility, compassion, etc."

Feelings are a lot like children; we can honor their feelings – but we do not give them the keys to the car!The "adult" must stay in control. To do so, it is helpful to adopt certain disciplines, such as:

RULE #1: ACCEPT ALL FEELINGS FEARLESSLY: G‑d blessed us with a broad range of feeling tones, each of which contributes to our depth and complexity as human beings. Just as the eighty-eight keys on a piano allow for a magnificent variety of musical sounds, we have high and low tones – from ecstasy and inspiration to rage and apathy.

When a painful feeling arises, Feelings are a lot like children; we can honor their feelings – but we do not give them the keys to the car! whether it is outrage, despair or anxiety, allow it to "swoosh" through your body like a river. Do not try to restrain it. Give yourself permission to feel the raw pain. Think: "G‑d is with me, accepting me as I am, right now. He loves me, whether I feel it or not." If you keep saying the words, then the pain will begin to fade at some point. When this happens, think, "Wow, I survived."

RULE #2: PUSH FORWARD: When the acute phase has passed, push yourself to do something (anything!) positive that proves that you have control over some aspect of your life. This can be as small as flossing your teeth or as big as forcing yourself to get to work. It's like the moment when the nurse walks in after an operation and forces you out of bed before you feel ready, knowing that staying in bed can cause blood clots. You can function with discomfort. Be proud of any positive acts you can manage to do despite the heartbreak. At times, just getting through the next hour takes enormous courage. See yourself as heroic for bearing the discomfort.

RULE #3: BE EMOTIONALLY MODEST: I once met a man who had been in a mental hospital for three months. When I asked if it was a negative experience, he said, "Not at all. We got to talk about our feelings all day long!" Indeed, researchers have found that sharing painful feelings for about 15 minutes causes a pleasurable rise in hormonal levels, but more than that will intensify feelings of self-pity and despair. So give yourself a time limit. Do not share feelings with people who will think of you as untrustworthy, stupid or insane. If you need a therapist, choose a "spiritual coach" who helps you learn to multi-task with the pain.

RULE #4: REFUSE TO SPECULATE ABOUT THE FUTURE: Is Iran going to strike first? Will the price of gas go higher? Will the marriage work out? If you find yourself speculating anxiously about possible future disasters over which you have no control, firmly tell yourself, "I refuse to go down that dark mental alley. G‑d gives me precisely what I need."Leave the future in His hands - unless you can take actual steps to protect or advance yourself, like getting a job, taking out insurance or avoiding junk food.

RULE #5: BECOME EMOTIONALLY INDEPENDENT: We'll never get all the love, understanding or appreciation we might crave. In fact, no one ever understands anyone completely. Assume that people are, "Doing the best they can with their present level of emotional intelligence and life experiences."

RULE #6: GROW FROM IT: If you feel anxious, increase your faith in G‑d. If you feel depressed, get busy! If you feel hostile, take protective action. If you feel jealous, let it be a catalyst for self-refinement, i.e., "I'm jealous of people who are kind and generous; I want to be like that."

RULE #7: USE EMOTIONAL FREEDOM TECHNIQUE (EFT). EFT is a great way to multi-task. It teaches you to acknowledge your feelings while choosing new beliefs and actions. For example:

FAKE IT: "Even though I'm anxious about being fired, I choose to do my best at work and talk the 'faith talk' to strengthen me and my family's perspective."

DO KINDNESS: "Even though I feel lonely and useless, I choose to volunteer at a charitable organization. Even if I'm just sticking labels on food parcels, it helps to be with people who appreciate my efforts."

STICK TO A SCHEDULE: "Even though I hate having this mood disorder, I choose to stick to my schedule of sleeping, eating, praying and working in order to create a sense of stability during unstable times."

FACE REALITY: "Even though I don't want my children to suffer maternal deprivation, I choose to face reality – lots of debts and a husband who says he is too depressed to work – and choose to find a job."

BE PROTECTIVE: "Even though I wish I could change this critical person, I choose to acknowledge that her presence is like poison to me and that I have the right to distance myself physically and emotionally."

BE GRATEFUL: "Whenever I start fantasizing about the person I might have married, I choose to remind myself that since G‑d made this happen, He knew that this was for my best."

VALIDATE YOUR NEEDS: "Even though I'd like to be more outgoing, I choose to validate that I am an introvert and don't need to feel ashamed of the fact that I need a lot of quiet, private time for myself."

BE RESPONSIBLE: "Instead of constantly berating myself for not being an organized superwoman, I choose to accept that I am organizationally challenged and need outside help."

In other words: Meet pain with compassion. Then focus on a positive act or thought to gain some distance and keep yourself from getting stuck in the quicksand.

Dr. Miriam Adahan is a psychologist, therapist, prolific author and founder of EMETT (“Emotional Maturity Established Through Torah”)—a network of self-help groups dedicated to personal growth. Click here to visit her website.
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Anonymous March 31, 2017

Thank you very much for this amazing article. I've always had trouble handling my emotions, but every time I would just 'suck it up' and try to shove them to the back of my mind, they would end up coming back at the slightest thing, like breaking a dish, and be even stronger than before. G-d willing, I will be able to effectively use what you have written to my benefit, and the benefit of those around me. Thank you very much :) Reply

Sandy Campbell Cincinnati May 11, 2016

Could you provide more references to Holy scriptures with all this knowledge. I love what you're saying and feel it's truth but I want to memorize the passages this relates. Thank you Reply

Anonymous May 5, 2016

Excellent Clear, thoughtful and practical Reply

ARIEL NEW YORK December 6, 2015

conflicted Everything has been taken from me. My two girls, wife, my 'soulmate' girlfriend, money, career and health within the past 3 years (I'm 40)......

the abyss is dark and endless and I constantly pray for G-D to just stay with me and never let me go the way that is within all of us.... I have, but Id much rather breathe in the pain and suffer than be someone I do not want to be and am not! Reply

Rachel S. CA December 1, 2014

Awesome article. I am a Christian and I admire the common sense and sound advice given on this website. It seems that the last part of the article was written for me! (I am a disorganized, sensitive, and moody introvert who's worried about getting fired hahaha >D) Reply

shkaree lancastrr, ca July 22, 2014

Exactly what I needed to read. to reinforce the feelings I was afraid to trust. To give myself permission to feel. thank you God and thank you for this site. Reply

Andrew November 29, 2009

Thank you Excellent, excellent article. So relevant in so many ways, you are a brilliant write. Thank you Reply

Anonymous Redmond, WA November 22, 2009

Thank you In the pursuit of Torah, it is easy to get confused and misunderstand that ALL my feelings are part of the blessings I've been given. This article helped me in a difficult moment AND helped me focus my attention on what I CAN do to be a part of the bigger picture. I told a friend recently that I believe one of the keys to self-love is to love. I mean, get out of myself and be a part of whats going on around me. Help a friend move, call someone is new to the shul, offer to shop for your friend with 6 kids... whatever. Show up and I will find at least a few little things to be joyful about, even in the darkest of moments. Reply

Sarah June 25, 2009

Thank you Thank you so much Dr. Adahan for this article and all the other great articles and books you have written. I really truly appreciate your work. It has helped me a lot! Reply

Susan Barth Bet Shemesh, Israel November 30, 2008

absolutely right this article is such a powerful message on how to deal with ourselves and view the world at large- thank you Miriam for helping those of us who need to "hear" and internalize the thoughts you so aptly expressed - you are simply extraordinary Reply

Anonymous November 28, 2008

For rule #6: when you feel jealous it only works as a catalyst if your jealous of a person's trait, but if you are jealous of a person's situation, lie for example when someone get married and you wish you were getting married, there is no way to filter this as a catalyst since it's a situation that doesnt depend only on yourself. So in this case what do you reccomend? Reply

jp eur, ca November 26, 2008

I'm fearful What if I'm scared of your message?

hopeless in america Reply

LHC PA November 25, 2008

Thank you I have been struggling with not eating my feelings. I am in counseling now with an amazing person and am finally realizing that "suck it up" is perhaps the worst advice one can give a child. Indulgence can backfire as well, but I loved that Dr. Adahan gave guidelines and time limits. Acknowledge, provide a time to indulge, then move on. Excellent advice. Thank you. Reply

Terri Tobias Mathis November 24, 2008

She knows me!!! I love this! Thanks for the permission!!! Reply

M.H. North Miami Beach/Yerushelayim, Florida/Israel November 24, 2008

put it on a poster As a child of the "poster generation" (no, they weren't all Peter Max and glow-in-the-black-light variety) I decided your list of emotional survival needs to be a poster. I don't need the "if life gives you lemons..." type of poster with a few words, and lots of implied meaning. I want it and need it to be spellied out, point by point, just like you did in this article. It's a busy, crazy world, often not leaving us the peace of mind to comtemplate what "...make lemonade" might mean.
Good job, Dr. Adahan! Hashem should continue to bless you with this type of wisdom, and the ability to share it with everyone else! Reply

Yehudis November 23, 2008

"loneliness, helplessness and insignificance" "As children, these feelings seemed scary because we identified with them; they represented our reality, our very identity. They seemed enormously important. We talked about them for hours with anyone who would listen."

My childhood wasn't perfect, and neither is my adulthood, yet I don't relate to the intro to this article. Those are not the big three for me. And I hope that few children feel that they are their reality and identity. Sounds very odd to me. Very unhealthy.

I have heard Mrs. Adahan speak. She seems like a very compassionate woman. She says she suffered a lot as a child and this continued into adulthood. I think she is projecting her experience onto others.

I would like to see a difference made between normal negative feelings and feelings arising from dysfunctional homes and unhealthy backgrounds and life circumstances. And I'd like advice on how to avoid negative feelings from arising, not just how to deal with them when they arise. Reply