As a culture, we have gotten very good at solving practical problems. The inventiveness and ingenuity of our time are unparalleled and unprecedented. A seemingly unlimited and exponential array of technological advances has afforded us with a level of comfort, convenience, and ease that has never been experienced. Nonetheless, one thing continues to ring true, we are still human beings.
To be human is to have feelings, needs, and wants. It is an ongoing state of imperfection. No matter how much we strive, invent, improve, gain or accumulate, we are limited. And we experience these things called emotions. They can be unpredictable, fleeting, and difficult to understand.
With all the new technology we consume and utilize, we’re provided with instruction manuals, video tutorials, and quick fixes to get our gadgets working efficiently and smoothly. However, we are vastly ill-equipped in being with our emotions. When we experience intense emotions, we often try to fix, change, or control something in our external environment much like we're fixing a computer or an automobile. We work tirelessly to try and change and control our experience in order to not have to feel whatever emotion is arising. Or even better, we speed up, move faster and try to do more in hopes of outrunning it and changing our emotional state. This resistance to emotions might work in the short term.
Avoidance, distractions, and compulsive activities can give us the appearance that our emotion has gone away. These short-term strategies are all a way to not have to feel something uncomfortable or unfamiliar. However, before long, the unwanted emotion resurfaces and we attempt to block it or stifle it again. In fact, we go to great lengths to avoid certain feelings. We may avoid certain people, places, and things that we think will bring up these difficult emotions. However, the more denial, avoidance, and suppression there are, the greater the pressure builds. And while we do a great job at keeping everything under control for extended periods of time, with enough pressure, the dam will eventually break. This leads to a tidal wave of emotion, feeling overwhelmed by all the built-up emotion that was pushed away, denied, stuffed down, and suppressed for days, weeks, months, and even years. This can feel quite overwhelming and uncertain. I write these 3 basic steps as a guide for having a new experience around emotions. Whether you are experiencing what feels like an emotional breakdown or want to learn to be more graceful in being with your emotions, these three steps can help to guide you.
1. Slow down, pause, and notice your feelings
When we feel emotions that are uncomfortable to us, we instinctively want to speed up and try to get rid of them. By speeding up, it actually reinforces the feeling that “this is an emergency or crisis.” By slowing down, pausing, and beginning to notice that feeling is arising, we can alert ourselves to the fact that these emotions are occurring within us and that the world is not crumbling beneath us.
Notice that the focus is on your feelings and not your thoughts. This is because thoughts are the branches and the fruit that grows is our feelings. We can have upward of 50,000 thoughts a day and trying to notice and control them all is seemingly impossible and far too exhausting. Orient your attention to your feelings and focus on the places in your body where the emotion is present. Notice the physical sensations without placing any judgment or labels on them.
2. Shift your focus from outward to inward
Often when we experience these intense feelings, we try and find a cause. “It was because this or that happened. It was because he/she said this or did that.” We become hyper-focused on some external person, place, or event that occurred. We believe that if only someone or something in our external environment changed, then we wouldn’t be feeling this way. So naturally, we go to work to try and change something in the outside world. This once again reinforces the need for panic and does not address our underlying internal experience.
Shifting your focus from the outside world to your own internal experience is a crucial step. By solely looking inward, we get to the root of what is occurring. We are not so much afraid of what is occurring in the outside world as much as we are afraid of the feelings we are going to have about that external event.
Be aware of what it is you are experiencing right here and now. Your mind might tell you a million different things about what happened yesterday, last week, or last year. Or it might endlessly fixate on what might happen tomorrow, next week, or next year. Bring your attention back to the physical sensations you are experiencing right now, in this moment. Once again, attempt to notice these sensations for what they are—merely physical sensations. Do not attempt to label them or place judgment on them. Simply observe.
3. Allow, welcome, and accept
The first two steps are all about noticing and becoming aware of the intense (and often unwelcomed) feelings and sensations. Yes, I understand that these feelings are often unwelcome. This third step is all about reducing resistance to emotions.
It has been said that suffering = pain + resistance.
By resisting emotions, it actually intensifies them and keeps them going and ultimately stuck in that agonizing state. Paradoxically, by welcoming them, leaning into them, and surrendering to them, they can move through us. Yes, it still may be painful; however, the agony will only last as long as you are unwilling to accept and welcome the experience of them. Emotions are like the weather, ever-changing and impermanent. Once you stop resisting the feelings and begin to welcome the experience, be aware of the emotions and accept the physical sensations, they will begin to diminish and disappear. This is the natural process of letting go. They do not stick around forever.
Here are some questions to ask yourself to help you with this step of allowing, welcoming, and accepting:
Can I welcome this feeling/sensation of….?
Can I let this feeling/sensation of…continue to be present?
Am I willing to open myself up to experiencing this feeling/sensation of…?
This is a technique that can be difficult to be open to. It can feel scary and uncertain. Our minds tell us that if we truly welcome these intense feelings, they will stick around forever, overwhelm us, and then we will lose control and our lives will be ruined. Yes, that is what our minds tell us, however when you experience this process firsthand, it can be quite liberating. It can feel like letting go of years and years of pent-up energy and emotion. You may feel freer, you may feel lighter or you may feel like you have a clearer mind.
It is not a one-time process. It is something to come back to and practice regularly. It is the way we are naturally designed to be with and process our emotions. If you watch any baby or young child, they often do this quite effortlessly and automatically. This is why one second they can be seen crying and the next second they are smiling and laughing. At one point we all intuitively knew how to do this process without having to consciously think about it. Then we grew up and learned a thousand ways in which emotions are bad, unproductive, frightening, and should be avoided. And in response, we learned many more ways in which to try and escape feeling and experiencing our emotions.
Be Still and Know
As we zoom out from the technical steps of this process, you may have noticed that in no way did any of the steps focus on people, places, or things outside of ourselves. And there was never any mention of solving any tangible problems in our environment. This is because doing more and trying to change things in the environment does not really address the direct source of our experience. Many clients of mine who have had this new experience around their emotions have commented that certain “problems” they thought they had in their life either just disappeared or the actual steps for solving them were simply completed and taken care of without much forethought. They also discussed a newfound energy and vitality that returned to their experience.
The paradoxical nature of the process is that it is less about “doing” and more about “being with” and accepting one’s emotions, feelings, and sensations. This can be a difficult adjustment and one that may take time. What I have found incredibly interesting is that no matter how technologically advanced we become, Blaise Pascal’s words from four centuries ago still holds a lot of weight:
“All men’s miseries derive from not being able to sit in a quiet room alone.”
Xavier Heditsian, MA, LPCC
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About Sam Nabil
Sam offers therapy in Boston and Boston Marriage Counseling for adults suffering from relationship challenges, life transitions and anxiety. Sam Nabil was featured in many prestigious publications. Check out his interview with Aljazeera English, The Washington post, The Boston Globe, Fatherly magazine, Women's health magazine, Cornell university, Yahoo News, USA Today, Marriage.com
Naya Clinics offers Marriage Counselors near me, individual therapy near me, and life coaching near me in various locations across the USA and the world. Naya Clinics also offers Online marriage counseling, online therapy, and online life coaching.
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