I hope that all of you who read my series on mindfulness have attempted to incorporate a mindfulness practice into your daily lives. Assuming that you have, or even if you haven’t already, it’s time to focus on what happens when we are more mindful and in touch with our inner world.
Our Dichotomous Relationship with Emotions
I don’t think any of us would argue that feeling happy is great. However, being alive means that along with hopefully many happy times, we have down moments, days, or even weeks. Being present means that we need to be in touch with the complexity of feelings and emotions we experience on a moment-to-moment basis. Tapping into and riding the wave of difficult emotions can be challenging, but the “ride” helps us stay connected to and in touch with our complex and vibrant inner world. The ability to feel is a privilege, even if feeling is sometimes uncomfortable, confusing, or both.
Why Numbing the Pain Doesn’t Work
As a therapist, I often hear my clients express despair and/or fear when they become overwhelmed with uncomfortable emotions. Feeling positive is valued in our society, and we are taught early on that other feelings like sadness, anxiety, loneliness are “bad” and not “legitimate.” The result of this pattern of thinking is that many people push away or suppress these “bad” feelings. Many of my clients tell me that they must always put on a happy face even if they don’t feel happy because they don’t want others to perceive them as weak or not in control. In order to manage their feelings, they sometimes “numb out” by engaging in unhealthy behaviors like abusing substances, overeating, binge TV watching, excessive shopping, etc.
What happens when we try to deny or push aside our “bad” feelings? The more we shove these feelings aside, the more they fight back and haunt us. We may initially be successful at numbing these painful feelings. However, they are like exiles; we can’t silence them forever as they will fight back harder and stronger to be seen and heard until they begin to control us.
Emotions are a Source of Strength
As humans, we have a diversity of emotions which we can’t control, manipulate, or dismiss. Rather, we need to accept that we have a range of emotions which guide us and provide valuable data into our inner world. When we learn to accept and manage these emotions, we build resilience. Contrary to what many of us have learned from our culture, upbringing, and/or family, leaning into our emotions is a sign of strength, not weakness. It’s a form of emotional intelligence.
Emotional intelligence is defined as “the ability to identify and manage your own emotions and the emotions of others. It is generally said to include three skills: emotional awareness; the ability to harness emotions and apply them to tasks like thinking and problem solving; and the ability to manage emotions, which includes regulating your own emotions and cheering up or calming down other people.”
Hence, the ability to accept, embrace, and manage our difficult, painful, and uncomfortable emotions — without analyzing, judging, or trying to fix them — is a strength.
Being strong and resilient incorporates the ability to be emotionally flexible, accepting whatever one feels without judgement.
Dr. Susan David in her powerful TED talk “The Gift and Power of Emotional Courage” talks about emotional agility as “a process that enables us to navigate life’s twists and turns with self-acceptance, clear-sightedness, and an open mind. The process isn’t about ignoring difficult emotions and thoughts. It’s about holding those emotions and thoughts loosely, facing them courageously and compassionately, and then moving past them to ignite change in your life.”
When we lean into our emotions, we challenge the cultural paradigm that feeling “bad” is a weakness. Rigid denial of our emotions comes back to haunt us, and creates its own set of challenges. Why not learn to accept and tap into our emotions as a way of creating a different experience which may pay off in the long run?
5 Steps to Accepting and Managing Your Emotions
Many of my clients have difficulty tapping into their emotions. It’s really not easy if one has lived most of one’s life numbing or dismissing negative emotions. If this is the case, here is what I suggest you do as a way of strengthening your relationship with your body and mind:
Step 1: Close your eyes or let your gaze fall gently downward.
Step 2: Lean in and dip into your body. What body sensations do you notice; pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral?
Step 3: Experience these sensations without questioning or judging them. Try hard not to distract yourself from your emotions because they provide you with valuable data about your inner and external world.
Step 4: When you start to hear chatter in your head, remember, the chatter is just noise and does not have to control you. Rather, you can “drive the bus” and decide whether you want to turn the volume up or down of the noise in your head. It’s important to not fuse with the chatter that’s going on in your head because it often makes us feel bad. Some of this chatter may include:
- “I shouldn’t feel this way.”
- “I am weak for feeling this way.”
- “I need to STOP feeling this way.”
Step 5: Once you are settled and in touch with your emotions, it’s important to ride the wave of those emotions you normally try to ignore, knowing that the discomfort will pass. Stop fighting and start accepting the range of emotions you experience. This does not mean that you should completely give into your emotions. Rather, find ways to manage these emotions in a different and healthier way. For instance, you can journal, meditate, take a walk, or talk to a friend.
Come up with your own list of tools which you can keep handy when you feel overwhelmed with emotions. My bet is that the more you practice leaning into your emotions, the more connected to yourself and to others you will feel.
I hope that you all enjoyed this blog. Stay tuned for my next blog in which we will dig into the powerful emotion of anxiety. As always, I welcome your thoughts, feelings, and comments.
Karen Chinca is a Licensed Independent Clinical Social Worker (LICSW) located in Brookline, Massachusetts, with over ten years of experience in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) for treating individuals and families who are dealing with academic, personal, and professional stress.