An Useful Approach to Difficult Emotions
As an undergraduate student in college, I remember speaking with a mentor regarding my thoughts and feelings towards a particular situation. A project I was considered to be a catalyst in was given to a graduate student in need of a thesis topic. As I was discussing the situation with this mentor, I also shared my approach to managing my thoughts and emotions, which was to acknowledge and experience the emotions, then address them and move on in a way that felt resolved to me.
His response was surprising and created questions for me to consider.
“That’s not what people typically do,” he reflected. “Usually they suppress the emotions or try to change them.”
Was he projecting his approach to handling difficult emotions? Was this expressed thought representative of men or people within the scientific community? Did I truly have a different approach to addressing emotions than the rest of society?
Our conversation continued as I explained my rationale for this approach. I’m thankful that my subsequent life journey has shown I’m not alone in this approach and that tools based in science support it. Plus, it provides a quick path to healing difficult emotions. Here is a summary of what I’ve learned.
Acknowledge the Emotion
Emotions are a normal part of the human experience. They can change within a minute due to a stimulus, the environment, or how much sleep or food we’ve had within a particular time frame. They can be categorized under the labels of positive or negative and be used to describe how we interact with ourselves and others. Importantly, emotions are neither good nor bad. There is no need to associate judgement with their presence, as emotions are a natural and expected part of the human experience. We all share in feeling a particular emotion at some point in our lives because we are all human.
Emotions also do not define us as individuals. We are not our thoughts or emotions. Sometimes experiencing strong emotions can make us feel otherwise. Creating space between a present feeling and ourselves helps to embrace this separateness. Labeling an emotion helps to create this space. Most emotions can be categorized into the general descriptors of mad, sad, glad, or afraid.
Furthermore, the focus on acknowledging an emotion isn’t the reason for why the emotion is present or the story we tell ourselves to rationalize the emotion. The purpose of acknowledging our emotion is to bring the feeling into our awareness so that we are not acting upon it subconsciously. Being aware of the emotion allows us to recognize it and attend to it with compassion and understanding. We bring attention to the emotion because it is present. This acknowledgement loosens the grip the emotion has on us in the present moment and offers space to separate ourselves from the emotion.
Experience the Emotion
In his response, I believe my undergraduate mentor was describing a societal manner of avoiding the feeling or expression of negative emotions. Fortunately, science and spiritual techniques exist to educate and teach us otherwise and to provide more useful approaches to addressing difficult emotions. As stated by Steven Hayes, cofounder of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), “Emotions are designed to be felt, but not felt constantly and ruminatively”.
Avoiding or suppressing painful emotions in attempt to combat the discomfort associated with them tends to keep us in an emotional purgatory. Furthermore, when we try to blunt the experience of feeling emotions, their energy tends to manifest elsewhere in our life or within our body. In the absence of pathology, the most efficient way to heal from a painful emotion is to notice how it feels and allow it to run its course without resistance. A concept taught in Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) courses is that pain and its associated discomfort are part of the human experience. Suffering, however, occurs when we try to resist feeling or acknowledging that pain.
How does one experience an emotion? It is a practice that begins with allowing an emotion to be present and noticing how its presence feels within your body. For example, think of a thought that brings up a mild to moderate degree of sadness. Instead of focusing on the story behind the thought, notice how your body reacts to the sadness and describe the sensations that you notice arising in your body. Perhaps you notice shoulders slumping, the chest caving in a bit, or a frown on the face. This awareness of the sensations within your body is the experience of the emotion. During these times, it’s helpful to remember that thoughts and emotions are fleeting; they will not last forever.
Additionally, the same practice can be applied to positive emotions. Recall a happy moment. Then observe what sensations arise in your body. Perhaps you feel an overall lightness, or your chest and heart move forward and feel more open. Notice the muscles of your face and shoulders; perhaps a natural smile appears across you face or your shoulders relax. This awareness of how your body reacts to thoughts and feelings defines experiencing the emotion.
Address the Emotion
We cannot control the thoughts or emotions that arise within our being. However, we are able to examine them, and observe how they effect our body. The purpose of this practice isn’t to change the emotion. Instead, this practice allows processing of the emotion. Ironically, this processing tends to shift the emotions without further effort on our part. Eventually, we come to a state of acceptance instead of numbing or resisting.
This observation also creates space between our emotions and how we choose to act upon them. A general rule I’ve learned when experiencing powerful emotions like anger or intense happiness is that it’s usually best to allow these feelings to process before acting upon them. Without bringing awareness to the present emotions, we can have a knee-jerk reaction that complicates a situation. Awareness of an emotion and allowing it to process provides the space for us to choose a response that is more in line with how we desire to move throughout the world.
Furthermore, by acknowledging and experiencing an emotion, we can create space to shift our perspective and challenge the thoughts and emotions that do not serve us. Practices and tools exist to help this shift, such as mindfulness, ACT, and The Work by Byron Katie. Life coaches and therapists are also great resources to offer support and instruction.
Although we don’t have control over particular circumstances, events, or the thoughts or emotions that arise, we do have the ability to determine how we respond to them. By cultivating awareness of our positive and negative emotions, we can consciously use these natural states to help guide us and move throughout life more in alignment with our true self.
Questions and considerations:
What emotion are you experiencing now? Can you label it? Can you verbalize your emotion out loud to yourself or to a trusted companion?
What sensations can you identify within your body at this present moment?
Can you identify examples in your life when you had a knee-jerk reaction to an emotion?
Can you identify examples in your life when you’ve noticed an emotion and chose to wait before responding?
From the answers to the last two questions, which approach did you prefer and why?
Christie Masters, MD, is a physician and life coach based in Los Angeles. She offers individual and group life coaching and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.