It goes without saying that we’d all prefer to feel good most of the time. No-one particularly wants to feel sad, anxious, angry or any other ‘negative’ emotions. If you’ve been influenced by the kind of positive thinking messages that teach you that creating a good life means focusing on always feeling good, you might have even become fearful of allowing yourself to feel bad. (For example, you might worry that you’ll attract bad experiences into your life if you let yourself slip into negative thoughts and feelings.)
Sometimes as children, we’ve been exposed either directly or indirectly to the message that anger is unacceptable or sadness is unnecessary or your fears are silly and so, naturally we learn to hide or suppress those feelings. But attempts to stifle, avoid, or deny your unpleasant emotions are usually counterproductive. If you routinely use strategies to avoid feeling bad, such as taking the edge of your stress with a drink, cheering yourself up with a bit of retail therapy, or talking yourself out of your hurt feelings when someone has upset you, you ultimately create more problems. Your stress is compounded by poor quality sleep after that wine. Your credit card bill eventually arrives. And resentments in a relationship continue to grow when they’re unaddressed.
The value of painful feelings.
Sometimes your uncomfortable feelings can act like inner alarm bells telling you there is something to fix or change and if you’re more concerned about avoiding those feelings, you’re not tuning into the valuable inner guidance of your own emotions. For example, if you feel remorse, that’s a useful clue that you’ve acted out of alignment with your integrity and you might need to modify your behaviour or make amends to someone. If you feel angry, you might realise that you’ve been allowing people to take advantage of you for too long and it’s time to learn to be more assertive. If you’re feeling stressed a lot of the time, it’s much more useful to look at the conditions of your life contributing to your stress than it is to keep numbing those feelings.
It’s only by learning to sit with that discomfort that you can look at what it’s telling you. When you learn to accept unpleasant emotions, they lose their power over you because, paradoxically, the more you reject or deny them, the stronger they become.
You know what they say: “What you resist, persists.”
If you have trouble being with unpleasant feelings, there are a few things you can practice that make it easier to tolerate that discomfort and use it to your advantage.
1. Break it down
When you experience a strong emotion, it often shows up as a bundle of thoughts, feelings and sensations in your body and a strong urge to act or react. As best you can, try to slow down your experience as if you’re watching it on a movie screen and tune into it part by part. What are the stories in your mind? What are the emotions? (Try to be as specific as possible.) And where do you feel those feelings in your body? Be aware of emotional reactions and see if you can resist that urge to immediately do something to escape or discharge the emotion.
2. Stay with the sensation
Where most people go wrong is that they get very caught up in the story in their heads; that is, all the thoughts and justifications for why you feel this way or shouldn’t feel this way. Thoughts create feelings, but thoughts are not feelings, so try to let go of the thinking part and tune into the sensation in your body. Anxiety might feel like a knot in your stomach or sweaty palms. Anger might feel like a weight in your chest. See if you can observe these sensations objectively, mentally tracing around them, noticing the quality of them and describing them in your mind. Emotions always show up in your body, so try to stay with those physical sensations and don’t get caught up in your stories about them.
3. Check back in with the emotions
Every now and then, move your attention away from your physical body and back to the emotion and note if there has been any change. Has your emotion intensified, or has it dissipated? Has the original emotion been replaced by a different one? (Sometimes anger makes way for sadness when you sit with it for long enough.) Be curious about what happens to the emotion as you simply allow it to dwell in your body.
4. Make a wise choice
Now that you have a safe way of relating to strong emotions, you’re in a more calm and mindful position to decide about what to do next. Rather than (over)reacting emotionally or running away from your feelings, you are able to see more clearly what your feelings are trying to tell you. This puts you back in control of your feelings and choices which is a much more positive and empowering position to be in.
Learning to stay with painful emotions, to observe your thinking mind and to not be hijacked by your thoughts and feelings is one of the most profound benefits of mindfulness. Contrary to popular opinion, the task is not to eliminate stress from your life but to learn a way of relating to it so that you have more more and freedom over your choices.
All of this and more is covered in my 8-week online course, “Mindfulness for Busy People”. To find out more, check it out HERE.
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