What To Do When Our Emotions Get the Best of Us: Practical Tools to Ground Us (Part Two)
By Beth Kurland.
This is part two of an excerpt from chapter 5 of my book The Transformative Power of Ten Minutes: An Eight Week Guide to Reducing Stress and Cultivating Well-Being. In Part One I talked about the cost of avoiding difficult emotions, and discussed what happens in the brain when strong emotions overtake us. To read that previous post click here.
Learning to Be With Intense Emotions
From my previous post you may be able to appreciate now that being able to stop and pause when we are overwhelmed by intense emotions can be immensely helpful. It can mean the difference between getting swept away by that emotion entirely, and bringing the cortex “on line” to help put things in perspective and choose how we want to react. When we learn to be present with difficult emotions we create that pause, or “moment of hesitation” (as my brother calls it), to sit and be with what is there. I often like to share this quote by Viktor Frankl, an Austrian psychologist, with my patients: “Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and freedom.”
By taking a moment to stop, breathe, feel and be with our emotions, we can help create that powerful space. Learning to stop and be with intense emotions as they arise also prevents us from resorting to our more habitual response (for many of us) of avoiding feelings that are uncomfortable, or pushing them away. When we learn to be with our emotions as they arise we allow them to go through their natural life cycle and move through us, without getting stuck or having to come out in other ways. In addition, as Miriam Greenspan (2003) describes, when we have the courage to be present with “dark” emotions such as fear, despair, and grief, we can experience a kind of alchemy and transformation that allows us to also feel gratitude, faith, and joy. As you will get to experience shortly, mindfulness skills are essential in our toolkit for emotional regulation. As Ronald Siegel, in his book The Mindfulness Solution (2010) explains so well, the more we can increase our capacity to bear uncomfortable emotions, and to be present with whatever is in our direct experience, the more ease we can go through life with, and the less suffering we experience.
So to emphasize, the goal is NOT to make difficult feelings go away. It is our goal to try and increase our capacity to experience and bear intense emotions, without being swept away by them. When I practice this with my patients, we focus on learning to be present with difficult emotions by imagining that we welcome the feelings in, befriend them, allow them to be just as they are. This is often quite the opposite of people’s initial inclination, which is to turn away from these feelings. While at first this may seem quite difficult, most people are surprised that it is a relief not to put so much energy into making the feelings go away. They realize that by befriending and turning their attention toward their difficult emotions they are NOT swallowed up by them; in fact, they often experience some sense of ease. I like to use the scene from the movie “The Wizard of Oz”, when Dorothy meets the “great and terrible Oz”, to illustrate a point. All along, the wizard has been built up to be some scary, giant monster. When toward the end of the movie the curtain is pulled back, Dorothy discovers that ,in fact, the wizard is just a small, meek, ordinary man. So it often is with our feelings. We go to great lengths to avoid our anger, sadness, and fears. However, when we actually allow ourselves to be present to those emotions, we are surprised to realize that we can handle them and bear them. They are no longer so scary to us.
I encourage people to think about sitting with their difficult emotions in the same way you might sit and listen to a good friend — with compassion and non-judgment — and in a space where you are receptive to truly listen (not to berate, advise, invalidate, or otherwise tell the person not to feel what they are feeling). In fact, think for a moment about a time when you shared intense emotions with a good friend who was able to simply listen openly to you. Chances are, having this accepting space to share your emotions was quite helpful, and enabled you to feel calmer. This is what it is like when we can sit mindfully with our feelings. For some people, imagining a parent sitting lovingly with a small child who is feeling sad, anxious, or angry can be a helpful image to bring to mind when sitting with our feelings. We are similar to that loving, accepting parent, and our feelings are like the small child, who simply needs to be accepted, held and heard.
Because emotions can become quite intense, and at times overwhelming, it is helpful to have some ways to create a feeling of safety, security and stability in our bodies, from which we can observe our emotions. In the next post I will share with you two specific exercises for doing this. Stay tuned!
The following is an edited excerpt from Chapter 5 of the book The Transformative Power of Ten Minutes: An Eight Week Guide to Reducing Stress and Cultivating Well-Being, (reprinted with permission from Wellbridge Books, an imprint of Six Degrees Publishing Group).
Beth Kurland, Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist and author of the award winning book The Transformative Power of Ten Minutes: An Eight Week Guide to Reducing Stress and Cultivating Well-Being (awarded Finalist in the Health and Wellness category by Next Generation Indie Book Awards). She is also the author of three upcoming children’s books and accompanying games for each, designed to help children learn practical tools to manage difficult emotions, face challenges, and cultivate positivity. (These books and games are scheduled to be released at the end of 2017 through Childswork Childsplay.) In addition, she writes poetry to inspire mindfulness. Beth has been in clinical practice since 1994 and provides evidence- based treatment to people across the lifespan, with a focus on using mindfulness and mind-body strategies for whole person health and wellness. To enjoy free meditation videos and audios, visit https://BethKurland.com.