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Big feelings, Mollie West Duffy and Liz Fosslien

Learn how not to be overwhelmed by the weight of how you feel.

Let's imagine you’re walking through a crowd of people. What do you see? Ponytails, bushy eyebrows, freckles, nose piercings, baseball caps, long earlobes, someone chewing gum, thick-rimmed glasses . . .


What you don’t see is the enormous weight of feelings that each of those people is carrying with them. Uncertainty. Envy. Anger. Burnout. Even, in some cases, despair.


We all feel these things – and for some people, since the pandemic, we feel them more than ever. And it's the biggest feelings of all that can be the toughest to talk about.


We’ll go over the book Big Feelings by Mollie West Duffy and Liz Fosslien. You’ll learn how to acknowledge those feelings to yourself and the world around you – so you can move forward. This isn’t going to solve all your problems. But it might be the best way to start tackling them.


Uncertainty

One day, Liz, the coauthor, got a headache. A really bad one. It was so bad that she could barely walk, and before she knew it she found herself in the hospital.


It wasn’t a tumor – great. It wasn’t an aneurysm either. But . . . what was it?


While they searched for a solution, a variety of doctors gave Liz a slew of treatments. Botox to the head. Steroids for her eye muscles. And antiepileptic drugs, which first gave her a crippling panic attack on the Chicago L train, and then, when she quit cold turkey, landed her back in the hospital.


But the worst thing of all? The uncertainty of not knowing what was wrong with her. It’s always the uncertainty. Uncertainty sucks.


Scientific studies back that up. How would you feel if you were told you had a 50 percent chance of receiving a mild electric shock? You’d be anxious, right?


But how would you feel if you were told the probability was 90 percent?


A group of scientists actually did that, and guess what: people felt more stressed – three times as stressed – if they had a 50 percent chance of receiving the shock.


Because when it was 90 percent likely that they’d be shocked, at least they knew it was coming. That’s how much people hate uncertainty.


So what do you do when you’re faced with it?


Rule 1: don’t avoid the problem – sit with it. It’s all too common to push uncertainty away by busying yourself with other tasks. Don’t do it. Let it in. Face it head-on. Try counting to 90. Chances are the panicky feeling will have subsided.


Then, get specific. Ask yourself: What are you really anxious about? Literally, what do you think might happen? And how would each possible scenario play out?


Now, of course, when you do that, don’t start catastrophizing. Remember that the worst-case scenario isn’t certain to happen – far from it. Be sure to plot out the best-case scenario, too.


But acknowledging exactly what you’re really worried about will put you well on the path to dealing with uncertainty in the healthiest way you can.


When you’re plotting out your scenarios, you’ll realize there are some things you can control and some things you can’t. As the famous saying goes, what you need is the wisdom to know the difference between them. Do your best in what you can control, and accept what you can’t.


Oh, and what happened to Liz, by the way? She learned to live with her migraines and took all the steps she could to tackle the pain without causing herself further harm. It’s far from perfect – but she’s learned to deal with it. And her uncertainty has turned into acceptance.


Comparison

Mollie, the other author, used to talk to Vanessa regularly. They’d been close since high school and their friendship had survived its share of ups and downs as their lives had progressed along similar, successful paths. They both wrote a book. They both got married.


But only Vanessa got pregnant. And suddenly Mollie couldn’t bear to talk to her.


Comparing yourself to others is something we all do, all the time. In the age of Instagram, we do it more than ever. And logging out isn’t a perfect solution. Needless to say, neither is cutting one of your best friends out of your life.


Maybe you’re envious of a friend’s high-paying job. Maybe your stomach lurches when you realize that, while you have a high-paying job, an old colleague from law school has switched to become a writer – the thing you’ve secretly always wanted to do. Whatever it is that sparks these comparisons, it’s always hard to know how to channel those feelings.


But the place to start is just like it was with uncertainty: you have to acknowledge how you feel. Say to yourself: What am I envious of? What do they have that I don’t? And how would I actually feel if that was my life?


You might realize that in reality, you don’t want it after all. Author Liz felt a strong pang of envy when she discovered an acquaintance was taking up a seriously senior business role leading hundreds of people. But would she really have liked a life like that? She doesn’t actually like meetings, or managing people. Sure, she wanted the prestige and validation of that sort of career – but, she soon realized, she’d actually have hated it.


Or you might realize that your envy is teaching you something useful about yourself. That’s what happened to Gretchen Ruben – the successful lawyer mentioned above, who found out her classmate was now a writer. That discovery prompted her to face up to what she really wanted to do with her life. So she switched careers, and that led to her becoming a best-selling author.


Comparisons can be devastating – but they can be productive, too. If you acknowledge them and really think about them, they can teach you a lot about yourself.


Although . . . not always. It’s a cliché that bears repeating: nobody’s life is as glamorous as it looks on Instagram. Don’t compare the best version of someone else to the worst version of you. And there’s a second point to bear in mind as well: it’s OK to be at a different life stage to someone else. We’re all on our own paths, and that’s great. Embrace it.


Mollie eventually got back in touch with Vanessa, by the way. She explained how hard it had been for her to see their lives take different directions. Vanessa was understanding. They’re still on different life paths now – but they’re friends again.


Anger

So, comparison: not all bad, as far as big feelings go. And the same goes for our next big feeling, too: anger.


A friend of the authors, Griffin, was on a foreign trip with the multinational company he worked for. He and the team were on their way out to lunch one day when a senior team member shoved his hand under Griffin’s shirt and started feeling his chest, chanting the word “Gay!”


Initially, Griffin didn’t feel angry. He felt ashamed – and, understandably, confused – but, having been brought up to believe that anger was a bad thing, he didn’t let it out. It was only after describing the incident to a friend – who rightly pointed out it was sexual harassment – that his attitude changed.


So Griffin got angry. But, after thinking it through, he decided not to channel that anger into a lawsuit. Instead, he worked really hard and got himself a different job. Not a perfect solution – but at least his anger was put to use.


Sometimes anger is righteous. It can simply be an understandable, justifiable reaction to actual injustices you’ve faced. What’s unhealthy is the idea we should suppress it. Because in reality, it’s like water. As the author Soraya Chemaly has said, you can dam it or divert it, but it’ll always find a way through.


So how do you deal with anger, then? Yet again, the first step is to acknowledge it. If it’s a particular problem for you, try writing an anger log: write down everything that sparks anger in you for a week or so. You’ll start to see patterns.


You should also think about how you tend to respond to anger. Some people are anger suppressors, who simply bottle it up – not healthy. Some people are anger projectors, who lash out at others. That’s not great, either. If that’s you, give yourself a chance to cool down before you engage with other people. And some people are anger controllers, who maintain that everything’s fine, even when it clearly isn’t.


Some people, though – and this is the one to work toward – are anger transformers. They understand that anger can be channeled into something productive and creative. It can be healthy and give you clarity.


Being an anger transformer doesn’t mean yelling at everyone. You should consider meditating to get into a clearer state of mind, rather than reacting impulsively. The key thing is you’re not denying the way you feel – rather, you’re using it, strategically, to move on.


Burnout

Mollie used to work as a consultant for a global innovation firm. She did this while also writing her first book with Liz. It was a hectic lifestyle and it required a lot of traveling.


It’s a moment she’ll never forget – the moment the burnout phase began. She was flying home to Seattle for Christmas, having already been in New York City, Montreal, Shanghai, and DC. She was in first class because she had the miles.


Someone next to her started to cough. And then Liz felt a whole wave of anxiety wash over her.


This was prepandemic, so it wasn’t a COVID thing. She just knew that she couldn’t get sick at all, because she had so much work to do in the month ahead.


Sure enough, she got a cold – a bad one. Which she then made worse by trying to take another trip too soon. She ended up having to cancel a whole host of events around the launch of their book.


Mollie’s burnout made her badly sick. In fact, she’s still recovering from it today.


But she’s taken steps to make it better. She and her husband left New York for the calmer pace of LA. She stopped giving herself a hard time if she skipped the gym one day or didn’t reply to an email straightaway. And she started to plan a career that gave her enough time to take care of herself.


Burnout is a message. It’s your body telling you: you can’t do this anymore; something has got to change.


And burnout doesn’t always look like Mollie’s did – it isn’t just for people jetting around the world. You might get burned out through exhaustion caused by long hours, but you can also experience it if you find whatever job you do meaningless – or if you feel that, no matter how hard you try, your work is never good enough.


So, what do you do about it? If you have the kind of burnout that Mollie did, you need to get comfortable giving a little bit less than 100 percent of yourself. Aim for operating at 80 percent capacity – which should give you enough time to have a little bit else going on in your life besides work.


Properly sorting out what you do and don’t value goes a long way, too. Figure out which aspects of your work you don’t find meaningful and which aspects are contributing to your feeling overwhelmed or unable to cope. Then find ways to move away from them.


And spot when you don’t feel like the effort you’re putting in is truly worth it. Putting stacks of work into a project but still not getting that sense of achievement out of it, is a classic sign of burnout. In that case, you might need to think again about what you really value in your career.


Perfectionism

Liz’s favorite pair of pajamas was a long pair of men’s pants with a hole in them. Her favorite evening snack was a bowl of popcorn soaked in soy sauce. Sometimes, Liz liked to get up in the middle of the night and pace around frantically, just to tire herself out. Oh, and her apartment was a mess.


All that was fine – it was just who she was. But when she got food poisoning, her boyfriend sweetly offered to come round and make some soup for her. Then she panicked. She couldn’t bear to let him see the state of her apartment! She panicked so much that she threw up.


We all have flaws. The problem is that an alarming number of us are perfectionists, constantly insisting on higher standards for ourselves than we can actually manage. Some people, like Liz, are perfectionists in their social lives, and some are perfectionists at work.


And some people will swear to you that perfectionism is a good thing – that being a perfectionist means getting things done.


Be wary of that. There are plenty of people out there who become so paralyzed by their perfectionism that they never take any action at all – people whose perfectionism, like Liz’s, causes unnecessary angst and stress.


But how do you let go of something like perfectionism? It’s hard. But one of the keys is to get comfortable with (what you think of as) failure.


It’s common to think of failure and success as opposites – picture two little piles of stackable bricks, one colored yellow, one blue. The truth is, the wall that each of us is building is made up of bricks of both colors and in no particular pattern. Because, of course, you learn from failures, and they help you along.


Here’s another tip. Ask yourself what your friends love about you. I’d bet good money that your ability to maintain a pristine email inbox does not figure highly on their list. Other people don’t hold you to the same standards that you hold yourself.


And here’s one more. Give your internal perfectionist voice a name. Call it Grace, or Bozo, or Voldemort. And when you hear that voice, remember that it’s them talking, not you.


Oh – Liz and her soy sauce popcorn. The boyfriend who came round when she was sick and saw her messy apartment? It was fine. They moved in together not long after that. And now, he’s her husband.


Despair

Let’s start this chapter with a trigger warning – it mentions suicide, so if you’d rather not read about that, skip to the next one.


Mollie was 32, and her first book had just come out. She was happily married and had no history of depression. But something changed, suddenly.


A big part of it was chronic pain – she was struggling badly with a pain in her feet that meant she could barely stand for five minutes without severe discomfort. The doctors weren’t able to help much, and some of the treatments actually made things worse.


She’d also been trying to conceive, but she was so stressed that she stopped getting her period.


So one day, on her way to a hotel on a work trip, she wrote a note to her family, saying goodbye. She made a plan for how to end her life. She got to her hotel room and lay down on the bed, knowing that all she had to do to set her plan in motion was call a taxi.


But she couldn’t bring herself to make the call.


The big feeling we’re dealing with here is despair. It doesn’t always get as bad as Mollie’s did, but it really can – and in the US, it’s been on the up for the last few years.


What can you do about despair? Unfortunately, there are no shortcuts. In fact, that’s pretty much the first step you might need to take: realize that it’s not a question of curing it but, rather, of getting through it gradually. You might have heard this bit of advice – take it a day at a time. Scrap that: take it a moment at a time. Because when you’re in the pits of despair, getting through just an evening can feel like an eternity.


So break that time up by indulging yourself. Have a hot shower, watch a silly movie, eat a tub of ice cream. Nothing is too frivolous if it helps you get through that time.


And when you do get through that time? Give yourself a pat on the back. And the same goes for every time you accomplish anything at all. Going to the pharmacy might not sound like a great success, even if it only takes a small part of your day, but if that’s all you’re capable of doing, then it’s something to celebrate.


One more tip? Talk to people – but only the ones who get it. In fact, avoid the ones who don’t. Seek out those who can give you empathy, not just sympathy. Politely distance yourself from your less helpful friends – just for a bit.


Mollie made it through. It took time, and there was no specific moment when she stopped feeling that low. A few little things did change – a new job, a book club, her husband was a big help. And now she looks back on her period of despair and she’s amazed at herself for finding so much strength. She found a way to get through it. So can you.


Regret

When she was a kid, Liz spent every summer with her grandmother in Germany. Liz cherishes those memories – of her grandmother’s dated floral wallpaper in the hallways and her big cozy armchairs in the living room, all in a strange and enthralling foreign land.


But when her grandmother died, her mother asked Liz to go with her to Germany to clean out the house – and Liz said no. She was busy with work and she was angling for a promotion, so the timing was just off.


And still, to this day, she feels the regret in her stomach.


We all have regrets. We’re hardwired to have them. In terms of evolution, it’s our brain teaching us to learn from our mistakes so we don’t do the same thing again. But the thing is, we end up feeling regret even when we’ve made decent choices or done things that were unavoidable. We just can’t stop imagining what might have been.


There are six types of regret, and they all require different strategies for tackling them. The first two are hindsight and alternate-self regrets. The hindsight regrets are when you look back and wish you’d known then what you know now. And alternate-self regrets are when you imagine how your life would have been if you’d followed a different path altogether.


With both of those, the key thing to do is to stop imagining some other life for yourself with rose-tinted glasses. And give yourself a break – if you really had known differently at the time, or if you had followed a different path, you’d be a very different person right now, and you might not have a lot of the things that you now hold dear.


Rushing-in and dragging-out regrets are about acting too quickly or too slowly – so slowly, in fact, that your indecision costs you dearly. These are regrets you can learn from, to improve your future decision-making. Analyze why you made the choices you did, and think about how you could have acted differently.


With ignoring-your-instincts regrets, the name says it all. And they contain a positive: your instincts were right! So give yourself some credit for that, and learn to trust yourself. Self-sabotage regrets are common in people struggling with addiction, and may require deeper work. But again, self-analysis and honesty are key. Be clear about why you made the decisions you did at the time.


It’s impossible to shut off regrets altogether. But you can get rid of the “should haves” – and replace them with “what ifs.” Because you can ask “what if” about the future – not just the past. Which, let’s face it, is much more practical.


So, Liz didn’t go to Germany to help pack up her grandmother’s house. Years later, her dad had to go to the hospital – it was his heart. And her mom told her not to bother taking the long trip from San Francisco to Chicago. We’ll be fine, she said. You’re busy.


But this time, Liz knew what she had to do – and she was on the next flight to Chicago.


Final summary

Big feelings have the capacity to knock us out. But you can learn to use them to grow. Whether you struggle with comparing yourself to others or battling despair, the first step is always to acknowledge how you feel. You can’t make big feelings vanish completely – but you can move past them.


And for those looking for more actionable advice:


Get therapy.

Talking through your feelings with a professional is a step that can help people enormously, so it’s worth considering no matter which big feelings you’re dealing with. And it isn’t necessarily always that expensive. There are numerous online resources and nonprofits that can connect you with free or low-cost therapy options. In the US, see if any local clinics have psychotherapy students offering free sessions. You can try looking up “sliding-scale therapy near me” online or check out the Open Path Collective.