painful and challenging emotions or experiences?
This makes sense. Who wants to willingly
experience emotional pain? It can feel worse
than an attack from a killer rabbit! That is
because psychological pain uses many of the
same neural networks that physical pain uses.
Plus, in order to increase our chances of survival, we are hardwired to seek pleasure and avoid
pain. Many of us will go to great lengths to prevent situations in which emotional
turmoil and discomfort might have the possibility of occurring. But what is the
cost to us when we make our decisions based on this? I can think of a few
examples from my own life.
Not advocating for my needs in a relationships because I didn't want to create
conflict. Not going to an audition or interviewing for a new job for fear of
rejection. Canceling last minute on a friend's party because I might have to deal
with social awkwardness. Not making a counseling appointment because of fear
of being that vulnerable with someone….
While avoiding discomfort or painful feelings can seem to provide relief in the
short-term, it can keep us from getting our needs met or enjoying things that we want to pursue. It might even cause damage in our relationships, and keep us
from being the kind of people that we want to be.
So say you do decide to face situations or explore feelings that bring up a lot of
discomfort or even pain… what then? Here are some steps that I have found
helpful when it comes to addressing the less-than-pleasant “stuff” that is going on in my brain and body.
Feelings aren't good or bad (though they can certainly feel that way)- they are information. By making space for them, we can see what that information is. Check
in with your body and notice what sensations are there. Maybe there is tension,
exhaustion, racing heart, or physical pain. What feelings do you discover as you
are turning your glance inward? Are you hurting? Scared? Angry? Do you need
something? Observe what thoughts are going through your mind. Are deeply held insecurities and beliefs about yourself coming up? Are you imagining worst-case \scenarios? Just spend some time curiously listening to what your mind and body have to say.
Naming what's going on can be powerful, and take some of the scariness out of
what’s there. It also helps us get specific about what we might need in a given
situation. You could say to yourself:
"I'm doing something that terrifies me."
"I feel like I am failing again."
"I'm so angry I want to hurt someone."
"I feel hopeless."
"I'm scared they will leave me if I let them see who I really am."
3. Practice Self-Compassion
Too often, we judge our feelings. We are frustrated that we are having them, think we shouldn't be feeling them, or believe that we should be able to just "get over"
them. These may be messages that we have heard from others in our lives and
chosen to internalize. Sometimes we are frightened by or ashamed of the things
that are inside of us, even though they are perfectly normal human experiences. This judgment, though usually an attempt to protect ourselves, actually increases our suffering. We end up ruminating and amplifying the already challenging experience, making it significantly more difficult to overcome.
What would it be like to try some of these out instead? Saying to yourself with
"May I be well and find some peace in the midst of this situation."
"May this pain from my past heal."
"May I be able to let go of my need to be perfect."
"May I find the strength I need to deal with this."
Or even expressing some admiration….
"I'm strong for be able to endure this."
"I'm proud of myself for being brave and facing my fear."
Perhaps even hope?
"This will not last forever."
"I know I can get through this."
"Others have been through this. They survived. I know I will, too."
This can feel awkward at first, especially if we aren't used to being kind to
ourselves. But oh, how amazing it feels! Many of us didn't receive these messages from the people in our lives that were important to us. What a gift to be able to
offer it to ourselves and to see how it transforms us.
4. Choose Action
Once you have made space to compassionately examine what the troubling
emotions are within you, and what they are trying to communicate, you can
choose how to respond. Maybe you will choose to pursue something you have
been avoiding, or honestly open up to someone. Maybe you will decide that something is too big of an issue to tackle just yet. Maybe you need a warm bath and
just to breathe and take care of yourself for a bit. The key here is that you have
the choice! By slowing down and taking this time, you aren't letting fear or other
negative emotional experiences automatically make your decisions for you. You
have the freedom choose to be the person you want to be and live a life that you value, not one that is dominated by running away.
It takes courage to face difficult emotions. If it’s too overwhelming to explore them on your own, connect with a counselor or a good friend for support. Though it’s not always a pleasant process, it has been my experience that people are happier and more fulfilled when they are able to live in line with their values.