One of the most challenging things about working with difficult emotions, like anger, shame, or sadness, is learning how to accept them in the first place. This will involve allowing ourselves to acknowledge them, feel them, and admit that they are important and deserving of attention. It’s hard to do all this simply because sitting with such emotions is extremely uncomfortable and unpleasant.
Another thing that makes sitting with these emotions so hard is the fact that there are so many others things surrounding us that make it easy to avoid feelings and distract ourselves. Our culture revolves around convenience, comfort, and avoiding anything that challenges us to feel anything but happy. So how does someone learn how to experience the full spectrum of their emotions and learn valuable lessons from them?
Mindfulness is a valuable tool in helping someone train themselves to accept their emotions in a nonjudgmental way rather than running away from them. This begins with simply sitting with ourselves everyday and checking in with how we feel. We observe our thoughts and mental states without trying to push them away, decide if they’re good or bad, or telling ourselves we need to feel differently.
Anger, sadness, shame, resentment, and frustration can all arise, and we can begin to work with them rather than avoid them. This teaches us to change old patterns of reactivity to these feelings that were perhaps hurting us. In this way, old habits that we may have never been aware of in the past can be recognized and changed into healthier ones.
The process of using mindfulness to accept difficult emotions can be broken down into six steps:
1. Experience the emotion. When you become aware of a feeling arising, take a moment to stop, breathe, and turn your attention to the emotion. Whether it be anger, fear, or sadness, allow yourself to then become fully immersed in the emotion. Become aware of where you feel it in your body, how it affects your breathing, or how it affects you physically in other ways. Maintain an attitude of curiosity and acceptance towards the feeling.
2. Identify the emotion. Once you allow yourself to fully experience the feeling, you can better identify exactly what it is. Sometimes one emotion will lead to another, or will even be masking an underlying feeling. Then label the emotion.
3.Accept the emotion. Once you’ve identified your emotion, allow yourself to accept its existence. This can feel strange or uncomfortable at first because we can be accustomed to denying difficult emotions or even punishing ourselves for feeling them. For many of us, we may even feel surprised at what we feel. This acceptance of emotions is an act of self compassion and acceptance that can make difficult moments far more tolerable.
4. Realize that emotions are temporary. When you allow yourself to witness a difficult emotion without judging it or punishing yourself for it, you begin to realize how temporary these feelings can be. You can see them as waves that pass through and away from you. By doing this, we begin to release the power they have over us.
5. Investigate its origins. When you are ready, you can begin to look deeper into why the emotion arose and what it can signify. It can be triggered by thoughts, an incident, a person, or something else. We can begin to better understand why we react the way we do and make changes to old, destructive patterns of thoughts and behaviors.
6. Be open to what comes next. Mindfully investigating difficult emotions is not an easy process, but it can alter our lives if practiced regularly. Allow yourself to be open to the changes it brings.