Some days ago, in my office, I began crying at my desk.  It caught me off guard. I had been down, sure, but mostly mopey and whiny, and I didn’t think it was much deeper than that. But then a thought sent me tumbling over the edge, and there I was crying.  I fumbled for my phone, and left my best friend a voicemail that started with me saying, “I’m sorry I’m calling you,” and followed with me heaving sobs into the earpiece.  Realizing that I wasn’t going to be able to get any other words out, I hung up the phone.  A few minutes later, I gathered myself together enough to call my husband, and he helped calm me down.  After I got off the phone with him, I looked at the clock and realized I had barely a half hour before I was set to see five clients, back to back.


I slumped in my chair.  I considered the ethics of canceling a day’s worth of clients because I felt down. I also—frankly—considered the money I would lose for the day. None of the clients I planned to see had been in crisis, so it was unlikely that I would be doing therapeutic harm by canceling. But it would certainly be inconvenient for them. And really, this was fantasy, the reality was that I was never going to cancel my clients simply because I was in a bad mood. I let out a deep sigh and heard Frost in my head; the woods are lovely, dark, and deep/but I have promises to keep/and miles to go before I sleep.  I took the remaining twenty minutes to steady myself, and then ushered my first client in the door.


But here’s the thing; my client came in, and the session started, and I was fine.  And four more sessions came after the first, and by the end, closing the door on the final client, I was more than fine, I was energized and upbeat. This is not the first time this has happened.  In fact, most of time, when I start my therapy day in a bad mood, it gets better as I see clients.  It gets better even as my clients break down crying in front of me, it gets better even as sessions are difficult or tricky to navigate, it gets better even as I may feel frustrated at stuck patterns of behavior or thought.


I think this happens for three key reasons.  The first is that, duh, I love being a therapist. It’s my jam.  I dig it. The second reason is trickier to explain, but it has to do with the mystery of the therapeutic process. The door opens and the client comes in, and in that moment I am something else.  My experience and training have prepared me to slip into this role, and in some ways I can’t help but to become that person, even when a part of me may be struggling. There have been days where I have ended the final session, and then felt my own feelings break over me like a wave, a dam burst now that my work day is done.


The last reason is not unique to me or to therapists, but much more universal.  The truth is that we humans are not that great at predicting how we’re going to feel in the future.  At the beginning of that crying-at-my-desk day, I felt the heaviness of my sadness, and imagined it weighing me down throughout the afternoon and evening. It was difficult to picture myself feeling another way anytime soon.


When we’re in a heightened emotional moment—whether that be sadness or anxiety or anger, it feels like that’s all there is.  Even when we imagine ourselves at some future point, we project those present feelings into that space. How I feel right now seems like how I will feel forever.


Because of this tendency, we often overestimate both the time and intensity of our feelings.  We think that if we start crying, we won’t be able to stop, or that our anger towards our partner will never go away.  But that isn’t how feelings work.  The one guarantee about feelings is that they change. We don’t feel anything forever.


If we can acknowledge the power and importance of emotions, without being seduced by their passion, then we can allow emotions to happen without being afraid that they will overtake us or go on endlessly.  Outside of having a life of relative security (food, shelter, health, safety, etc), probably the most powerful thing we can do for ourselves is to develop a relationship with our own feelings.  And I don’t mean mastering them, or some BS about controlling them.  I mean being in a bona fide, full on relationship with our emotions, where we listen to them and respect them and appreciate them and suffer with them, and then make decisions accordingly.


Part of the reason I ended up crying at my desk that day was that I was not doing this.  I had ignored my own, frequently given advice, and instead had beaten myself up about how I felt and tried to suppress it. I had told myself reason after reason why I shouldn’t feel the way I did, and tried to talk myself out of my own emotional experience. This was dumb. Our feelings really do not like it when we (or anyone else) tries to say they aren’t valid or ignores them.  Eventually, they leak, or outright burst.  And when they do, they feel overwhelming because we haven’t made space for them.


In that brief interlude before seeing clients, what I had refused to acknowledge forced its way out.  And in that moment, I was blindsided. It was tough to remind myself that these feelings weren’t going to go on and on, and that I didn’t need an escape plan as much as I needed to sit with them and actually listen. Their intensity conned me into thinking that my emotional now was my emotional forever. But, of course, feelings never last, and the very act of recognizing them siphons off their fuel.   Our feelings matter, but they don’t hold the full story. They are essential guideposts, but they don’t extend down an endless road.  They will not be ignored, but it is still up to us to choose how we respond to them.