Let’s talk about uncomfortable emotions for a minute. You know, the ones that you always try to avoid? Sadness, anger, jealousy, rage, loneliness, anxiety, stress, overwhelm, annoyance. I use the description uncomfortable rather than negative or bad, because emotions aren't good or bad. They are either comfortable or uncomfortable for a person, and this differs depending on one’s personality, upbringing, and life experiences. One person might find the emotion of embarrassment to be highly distressing, whereas the next person may find it humorous.
Often when we are growing up, we are taught that certain emotions are ‘bad’, particularly anger and sadness. So, as we get older we try to avoid those feelings, pushing them away as we ‘shouldn't’ be feeling them. But what typically happens when you avoid something? It either gets worse the next time, or you find you need to use unhelpful coping strategies to deal. This is a pattern that I see every day with clients, where people continue to avoid uncomfortable emotions and then wonder why they keep getting more and more upset.
So if avoidance of emotion doesn't work, what can you do? Approach the emotion.
Yes, I'm asking you to approach that terrible feeling of anxiety, that bitter taste of jealousy, that pang of loneliness. We can bring more attention to our uncomfortable emotions by using the practice of mindfulness. Mindfulness is the process of bringing your attention to the present moment, on purpose, without judgement. You may have used mindfulness before to pay attention to your breath, your body sensations, your thoughts…but what about your emotions?
By bringing more attention to our emotions, we start to learn several things;
They aren't that scary.
Emotions are within us for a reason (Inside Out anyone?), and when we can accept and celebrate the need for the wide variety of human emotions, they become a lot less intimidating.
We can handle more than we think.
How many times have you said something like “I can’t even deal with this” or “It’s all just too overwhelming”? We often have much lower expectations for ourselves for how much emotion we can handle at one time. We set ourselves up for failure by predicting that we ‘can’t handle it’ then avoid actually feeling the emotion, reinforcing our original beliefs.
Attention leads to acceptance which leads to happiness.
Perhaps not at first, but the more you practice being mindful and bring attention to your uncomfortable emotions, the more you will accept them. This acceptance of uncomfortable emotions can lead to a much more satisfying and happy life.
If you would like to improve your reaction to stressful events, build your emotional intelligence, and reduce negative coping strategies, then the below mindfulness of emotion exercise could really help.