Facing difficult emotions
Updated: May 10
Most people are aware of the importance of sharing how they’re feeling, but it can be far from easy to do this, and we might not always have someone to share our concerns with anyway. People have different emotions they find it hard to acknowledge, even to themselves. Some might be comfortable with anger, but don’t like to feel lonely; others might be at ease with feeling afraid but find sadness hard to bear.
Investigating our experience
The first step in looking after our mental health is to be aware of what we’re feeling. From a place of calm acceptance, particularly of things we do not like, we are then more able to make wise choices for change. When we don’t know what is going on in our minds, it is difficult to effectively manage challenging situations and uncomfortable emotions.
Maybe take a moment now to consider how you’re feeling. In mindfulness practice, we focus on three aspects of our experience: body sensations, thoughts and emotions. It can be easiest to start with body sensations – are you feeling heavy, light, hot, cold, any particular aches or pains?
And how is your mind? Do you have lots of busy thoughts rushing around, or perhaps one thought that keeps coming back? Maybe just thoughts such as, “What am I thinking, am I thinking?!”
See if you can note any emotions that might be present – these might be pleasant emotions, unpleasant ones, or a mixture. You might also have feelings about certain emotions that are present; ie, you might be feeling lonely, and then feeling sad about this. Do any of these resonate with your current experience: angry, sad, fearful, anxious, disappointed, bored, lonely, ashamed, happy, contented or curious? Or perhaps there are no particularly strong emotions here at the moment.
If there was weather in your mind, what would the weather be right now? Sunny, stormy, dull, windy, or perhaps a mixture?
The invitation with mindfulness is, as best you can, just for now, to allow your experience to be as it is, (and this can include not liking it), and allowing ourselves to be as we are. It’s tiring to be trying to make ourselves feel something we’re not. What would it be like to simply let yourself be?
Self-Compassion, shame and uncertainty
It can be useful to consider which emotions we find it hardest to acknowledge and let ourselves feel. Two particularly difficult emotions to experience are shame and uncertainty. Like all emotions, these lose their grip when we turn towards them and ourselves, with kindness and curiosity. We cannot get rid of emotions such as uncertainty or shame, but we can learn to be comfortable with them.
I am grateful to Chris Germer from the Center for Mindful Self-Compassion (www.centerformsc.org) for his ideas about self compassion and shame.
“When we have an intense emotion like shame,
it is hard to hold it with kindness
when we cannot hold ourselves with generosity and care.”
When we talk about self-compassion, we’re actually talking about overcoming shame.
And when we practise self-compassion, we’re learning to overcome shame. Being able to let things go, to let things be, is a central aspect of forgiveness and compassion, and is something we practise in mindfulness training.
Shame and guilt are common emotions. Any time we think badly of ourselves, we’re probably feeling shame. It might be quite subconscious; for example, forgetting to buy someone a birthday card, and then thinking, ‘How could I have done that?’. These little moments, most of them not noticeable, are times when we’re shaming ourselves. Sometimes there’s a louder inner voice: ‘You don’t deserve that. Who do you think you are to want that?’. Or sometimes there’s just a sense of resignation or defeat. It can be helpful to be aware that shame comes from a common wish to be approved of, accepted and loved. It is extremely normal, and also something we can learn to manage and let go of.
The paradox of emotions such as shame is that:
- they can make us feel isolated, but in fact they’re universal,
- they feel permanent, even though emotions actually come and go.
What to do once you’ve acknowledged an emotion
When you’ve recognised that strong emotions are present, you can try grounding yourself by turning your attention to your breath, feeling the sensations in your body as you breathe. Perhaps placing a hand on where you feel the breath most easily, maybe your chest or belly. Is there an echo in the body connected to an emotion you’re feeling? Can you send a ‘kindly breath’ towards that place? Maybe take a few deeper breaths, with a sense of kindness and warmth. You might like to imagine you are breathing in self-compassion, breathing out with a sense of letting go, letting be.
The more we resist feeling an emotion, the longer it stays around; which is why mindfulness practice, when we turn towards our experience, can be so effective when dealing with uncomfortable feelings. However, sometimes feelings are too uncomfortable to lean into, or it might not be an appropriate time to do so; at times like these, it is advisable to take our attention elsewhere, perhaps to our breath, sensations or sounds.
Remember that whatever you’re feeling, you’re human and there are others in the world who are feeling just like you, right now. We often live as if everything ought to be lovely all the time. Unfortunately life isn’t like that; to be human is to struggle with things. Self-kindness and remembering our common humanity can make a great difference in how we experience unpleasant emotions.
To sum up, when we’re in the grip of difficult emotions, we can reframe our experience by:
- acknowledging how we are feeling, recognising what emotions are present,
- remembering that it is common to be feeling as we are,
- focus on our breathing, or sensations in our feet or hands,
- offering ourselves understanding, acceptance and compassion.
The good news is that we can learn how to ride the waves of strong emotions, to navigate the ups and downs of life, and to nurture ourselves with patience and care.
“We cannot stop the waves, but we can learn to surf”
Jon Kabat Zinn