Four Ways of Relating to Difficult Emotions with Mindfulness
Challenging emotions such as anxiety and sadness can be opportunities to be fully alive and awake in our moment to moment experience. During difficult emotions, it is normal to instinctually push away the feelings and resist the experience. Naturally, we may want to escape the uncomfortable feelings because, well, they are uncomfortable! However, our own resistance to challenging emotions can lead to more painful and longer lasting difficult emotions. The Swiss psychologist Carl Jung is noted for saying, “What you resist, persists.” However, another option is to fully participate in our experience with wholehearted awareness, openness and acceptance. By allowing the emotional disturbance to be there as it is, we might find it to be more tolerable as we ride the wave of intensity. We might also feel more whole and complete instead of feeling like we need to get rid of a part of us that is hurting – feeling as though we are divided amongst our self. So rather than having an aggressive and unconscious relationship with difficult feelings, we can practice having a kind, compassionate, and conscious relationship with the inevitable difficult emotions that are part of being human. Here are some ways to practice mindfulness during an emotional storm:
- Move toward the emotion without trying to resist or distract. We may habitually try to resist the emotion, and commonly find ways to distract oneself to avoid the uncomfortable experience. Common behaviors to distract oneself would be using drugs or alcohol, overworking, overeating, excessive screen time (TV, smart phone, etc.), keeping super busy, obsessive thinking, blaming others or our self, or using any other familiar avoidant pattern. These behaviors could be used as feedback that we are trying not to feel a certain feeling. This can be an opportunity to open to the actual feeling and give oneself permission to feel whatever is arising with a sense of openness and even curiosity.
- Body awareness can give us direct access to the bare experience of emotions. Our Western culture has the tendency to put more emphasis on thoughts, ignoring the deep wisdom of the body. Emotions can often be felt on a sensation level in the body, such as a heavy heart in the chest region and a lump in the throat when sad. Or a tight stomach and a panicky feeling in the torso when anxious. We can practice allowing ourselves to feel the actual sensations of emotions with no need to interpret the experience. Sensations in the body are what’s most true and accurate to what is really happening moment to moment. Thoughts might be inaccurate to what is really happening, and can even feed the difficult emotion. However, awareness within the body during an emotional storm provides a wealth of present moment information, and connects us to feelings we may have been trying to push away. By opening to the intense body sensations, we can build the tolerance and confidence to be with whatever is arising and passing.
- Relate to whatever arises with unconditional kindness. Psychotherapist Bruce Tift, in discussing unconditional kindness in in his book Already Free, states, “It requires us to cultivate an active heart-opening attitude toward our experience. We begin to feel a sense of YES toward everything. We don’t just say YES; we actually feel it.” So rather than feeling a NO to any difficult emotion, we can open to what is there and stay present. Like a mother who is compassionately holding a baby who is crying inconsolably, we can stay with our difficult feelings with kindness, not abandoning ourselves or trying to get rid of anything. We can be fully attentive, and with the wisdom that whatever arises will also pass. Bringing awareness and acceptance to uncomfortable disturbances in the body can be considered an act of kindness, providing the emotion the space to move freely instead of being constricted with aversion.
- If flooded and overwhelmed with emotion, consider opening to other senses. It is important to recognize when the feeling is too intense and outside of one’s capacity to stay with it at the present time. This is when expanding awareness to include other present moment experiences can help bring some stability. It could be useful to bring one’s awareness to sounds, fully experiencing the sensation of hearing. Or it might be useful to bring awareness to sight, taking in fully whatever is in the field of vision. You can look for any pleasurable aspect in the present moment experience such as the warmth of sun on the skin, the feeling of being with loved one, or other pleasant aspects of your surroundings. Some find it useful to feel the difficult emotions for short periods of time, perhaps just 30 seconds at a time, then broaden the awareness to include other aspects of the present moment. Being able to go back and forth, from touching the difficult emotion and then expanding awareness to other aspects of the present moment, can be a valuable skill to develop, playing with our edges. Please note that it is important to honor one’s limits, and to also know that seeking professional help from a therapist might be a useful and necessary part of one’s path.
Gently providing space for emotions within an environment of awareness and acceptance can free oneself from having to feel a certain way. The practice of bringing mindfulness to challenging emotions can help bring unconditional confidence to fully participate in life, regardless of what arises, and completely engage in the uniqueness and depth of being human.