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Embracing Challenging Emotions

February 28th, 2019 by

Many of us grew up in families where avoiding expression of emotion was valued. We weren’t provided safe space to feel or express a full range of emotion. Perhaps our primary caregivers worked really hard to avoid their own challenging emotions thereby only praising us for those feelings viewed as positive. We may have been taught to suppress troublesome, inconvenient, or socially unacceptable feelings. Wearing a mask of confidence or compliance to hide these feelings only works in the short term. We are often expected to put a smile on our face no-matter-what and keep moving. Over time the internal pressure of unresolved emotion builds, causing seemingly sane, rational, and well-adjusted people to explode at inopportune moments. When we do not release and express challenging feelings our body may eventually send us a signal in the form of illness and physical discomfort.

Here are some examples of core beliefs that impact our ability to work through challenging emotions and/or to seek support:

  • “Sadness is weakness”
  • “I don’t have the right to be upset, fearful, angry, etc…”
  • “If I showed my true feelings, I wouldn’t be accepted”
  • “No one around me can really understand me”
  • “I am a burden to others”
  • “Acknowledging or expressing my feelings will intensify them and I will lose control”

I’d like to invite us all to identify these beliefs and look at where they came from: what early experiences taught you this? This is a journey that I enjoy walking with others in. Once we can identify where these beliefs come from and where they are reinforced currently, we can begin the process of finding compassion and increased understanding of ourselves and others. This is one of the ways we can work towards embracing a full range of emotion.

We may also find ourselves struggling to know what we are feeling much of the time. It’s as if we walk in the world on autopilot or we may have come to believe that any paid attention to ourselves signals selfishness. Something to consider is this: rather than becoming selfish we may become selfless. Self-care in the form of self-compassion can be a loving practice to gently shift into emotional embrace. Below I will shine light on a few practices that can assist us in our journey to embracing the whole self, our humanness and all of our feelings. Through this we may find a life in better balance.

One of the first things I can offer to myself and others is the body scan meditation. Take a moment to allow breath to deepen. Begin to become internally aware. Noticing how the breath breathes the body. Starting at the top of the head scan the body. Identify any areas of the body where you notice sensation. Allow a moment of focused breath to that part of the body. You may ask the body what it is trying to tell you. Work with the first thing that comes to your mind. You may get an image, a color, a word or phrase. Be curious. When a challenging emotion occurs you may try to identify where you feel this in the body and breath into that area. You may practice noticing an area of discomfort and then scanning again for an area of comfort. Practice focusing the breath between these two areas.

One of my favorite practices is by the Buddhist Psychologist, Tara Brach (see below).

  •  Practice: RAIN of Compassion by Tara Brach
    The acronym RAIN is an easy-to-remember tool for practicing mindfulness and compassion using the following four steps: Recognize what is going on; Allow the experience to be there, just as it is; Investigate with interest and care; and Nurture with self-compassion. You can take your time and explore RAIN as a stand-alone meditation or move through the steps whenever challenging feelings arise. (*Adapted from True Refuge (2013) by Tara Brach.)

Another perspective I find incredibly healing is to begin to recognize our emotions as messages that carry internal wisdom, rather than things we want to experience more or less of. Surprisingly I have found this to be best illustrated through my love of horses. This may sound like a stretch or slightly off topic but to that I offer the following:

Horses are the epitome of Zen. They are the largest prey animal to have survived over the years. They are keenly aware of their environments and they communicate through body language and emotion. Horses use emotion as information to engage surprisingly agile responses to environmental stimuli and relationship challenges. Rather than suppressing they use a simple four-point method that any human is capable of learning. This method provides an antidote to the stress we mistakenly create by denying the body’s intelligence and its incredibly efficient use of emotion as a nonverbal communication system.

This method aligns thought, feeling, and action for optimal performance, enriching your personal and professional relationships in the process.
1. Feel the emotion in its purest form.
2. Get the message behind the emotion.
3. Change something in response to the message; and
4. Go back to grazing. (In other words, let the emotion go, and either get back on task or relax, enjoying life fully. Don’t hang on to the story, endlessly ruminating over the details of uncomfortable situations.)
(*Excerpted from The Power of the Herd by Linda Kohanov)

If you take just one thing only from this article, I would invite you to take this: Finding the courage to process and feel all feelings is crucial to your well-being, both mentally, and physically. Emotions are neither positive or negative and all of your emotions are necessary. You can begin to work towards embracing them just by being present and allowing them to flow.

About the Author

Jennifer Baker, LCPC, CADC, has been a mental health practitioner for over 10 years. She works as a therapist in private practice at Beverly Therapists and specializes with clients who have histories of complex trauma. Jennifer enjoys walking alongside her clients as they explore their inner selves and work toward increased mind-body connection. Jennifer enjoys incorporating somatic therapies, utilizing yoga, and meditation to increase awareness and well-being. She most recently added her love of horses and nature to her life and is working toward incorporating equine guided learning and therapy to her practice.

Beverly Therapists

Beverly Therapists