Having difficulty allowing and dealing with our feelings is a common problem that can contribute to our tendency to self-sabotage by making unhealthy choices in all areas of our life. The anxiety created by resisting feelings and allowing them to get stuck, rather than relaxing into them so that they may flow through us and naturally pass, can cause us to crave distraction and comfort in things that do not serve us. Ultimately, those poor choices only contribute to our unpleasant feelings, creating a vicious cycle of continuously feeling bad and endlessly seeking relief. And of course, a tendency to get stuck in bad feeling has nothing but negative impact on our relationships, our ability to work most effectively, and our capacity to feel joyful and at peace.
It is much more effective to handle our feelings more consciously and deliberately as they arise. While it may take a little time out of your day to work through a process like this is as the need comes up, it is considerably less time than you will spend:
1) Reacting, UNconsciously, in potentially destructive ways
2) Recovering from your actions and getting yourself back on track
There is a better way.
If this has been a problem area for you, try working with this process, and then develop the habit or routine of taking these steps as the need arises:
First, we must be able to recognize each feeling as it comes up. In that initial flush of feeling uncomfortable and anxious, rather than reaching for something to eat, turning on the TV, or picking a fight with your partner/child/co-worker, bring your attention, or mindfulness, to the moment, look at the feeling and identify it. Most unpleasant feelings can be categorized as 1) fear, 2) sadness, or 3) anger, but whatever you want to call your feeling is fine.
Next, we want to accept the feeling, as opposed to reject it or label it as bad. Rather than trying to deny it or suppress it as you push through to your next task, take some time to acknowledge and greet the emotion that has arisen by saying something like, “Hello, sadness. I see that you are with me today.” Remembering that you are so much more than your sadness, welcome it in as a guest that has a message for you. At first this may feel awkward, but doing this regularly will strengthen your ability to be mindful and make it much easier to handle these episodes over time.
The third step is to calm the feeling. Just becoming fully aware of it will provide some immediate relief. In his book, Peace is Every Step: The Path of Mindfulness in Everyday Life, Thich Nhat Hanh recommends using our breath as we process emotions. Running through this kind of script in your mind as you breathe in and out can be very effective: “Breathing in, I know that sadness is here.” “Breathing out, I know that sadness is just one part of me.” “Breathing in, I acknowledge that sadness does not feel good.” “Breathing out, I know that sadness is just a feeling that will pass.” “Breathing in, I feel calm.” “Breathing out, I know that I am strong enough to deal with this sadness and know I always will be.” You might try holding your hand over your heart during some or all of this process as an additional way to show concern and care for yourself and to connect more deeply with your spirit.
Now you want to completely let the feeling go, which the breathing process will help you do. Knowing that you can calm and comfort yourself, even in the midst of being sad, helps you see that your sadness does not have to overwhelm you. It can move through you and over you like a big wave, and allowing yourself to just float up and ride that wave as it passes is much more effective than trying to swim into it in a pointless struggle to conquer it.
The final step, once you have calmed down, is to look at the feeling and examine where it came from. Sometimes it will be very clear and there will be a direct connection between occurrence/circumstance and feeling, but often you will realize that multiple factors led you to have the feeling. Perhaps there are things you can address in your environment to improve your situation. Possibly there are issues related to how you are looking at the situation or beliefs you hold that are causing you to suffer. Sometimes it can help to speak with a counselor or trusted friend who can help you uncover your underlying perceptions and work to develop an outlook and understanding that serves you much better.
When you repeatedly have the experience of taking care of your emotion in this way, with compassion and love for the feeling and for yourself, much like a parent would do for a child, the natural ebb and flow of emotions we all experience becomes much easier to handle and will not derail you so easily. This approach can actually turn a challenging ordeal into a productive and growth-promoting experience by releasing the energy you need to make improvements to your circumstances, rather than leave you feeling stuck and possibly acting out in some destructive way later on.