“Nothing ever goes away until it has taught us what we need to know.” ~ Pema Chodron
Most of us don’t step back and consider the functions of our feelings. Emotions provide us with valuable information. Let’s consider what the value is in feeling happy. Happiness motivates us to continue pursuing an activity, situation, or going in a certain direction. The feeling itself provides information on what truly matters to us. Happiness also provides, and communicates, information to those around us and solidifies social bonds. Would a friend invite you to their house again if you looked miserable the last time you were there?
Beliefs about Emotions
We all have beliefs about emotions. For example, you might believe that you are weak if you feel sad, depressed, anxious, or fearful. What we believe about emotions affects how we feel and how we behave when an emotion arises. Emotions may feel overwhelming when we automatically assume we won’t be able to tolerate or cope with them, or if we believe that they will last forever. We often have long-held, deeply rooted, beliefs which trigger automatic behaviors (ie emotional eating, abusing drugs/alcohol, avoidance, distractions, etc).
Take a moment to reflect:
- What are your beliefs about emotions?
- Is there a specific emotion(s) that is especially triggering for you?
- What are your beliefs about your ability to tolerate, or manage, emotions?
- How do these beliefs affect your reactions, or your behavior?
Some common beliefs about emotions include:
- I need to control my feelings, especially uncomfortable feelings, or I may lose control.
- I feel too deeply and I’m just “too sensitive.”
- No one else feels the way I do.
- If I just try harder, I can “get rid” of a feeling.
- Negative emotions are “bad” and should be avoided.
- Distracting myself from an emotion is much better than feeling it.
- I can think my way through a feeling and it’ll go away.
- I’m not feeling the way I “should” be feeling.
When you mindfully notice your feelings, you practice bringing an awareness, not your guilt, shame, or judgement, to your habits and behaviors. The practice of noticing your emotions, as compassionately and nonjudgmentally as you can, will give you a helpful and invaluable perspective on how your thoughts, emotions and behaviors intersect. In a moment of emotional distress, it may feel impossible to tune in or hold onto that perspective, but over time it will become easier and easier to say, for example, “Ah…I’m feeling sad/lonely/angry/hurt/disappointed, and there is that all-familiar pull to withdraw/lash-out/emotionally eat/drink/numb myself, etc.” Learning how to listen to and honor your feelings may lead to (many) Ah-Ha moments, where you suddenly understand a situation, or it becomes clearer why it’s affecting you in a particular way. You will begin to automatically become an expert observer of your feelings and will start to notice you have a choice in how to manage, respond to, and handle the feelings/situation.
Ways to Notice and Identify Feelings
At times, certain emotions can feel so intense that they overshadow others. Do you notice a particular emotion that often drowns out all the other feelings that may also be present? Does sadness overshadow your anger? Does fear get in the way of your experience of joy or excitement? When an emotion gets you feeling stuck and overshadows other emotions and experiences, it pulls you away from the present moment. It’s important to observe, notice and label this process and return (mindfully) to the present.
When we sit with our emotions, allowing ourselves to experience them, one of the first important steps is to accurately identify and label/name the emotion. Labeling an emotion that we’re observing, without judgment and accepting it as is. When you give your feeling a name, you become separate from the emotion—you’re not judging it as “good” or “bad”—it just is what it is and it doesn’t define or emotionally hijack you. Labeling and naming an emotion also provides us with useful information on how to cope with and mange it. When you replace “I’m feeling terrible or uncomfortable” with “I’m feeling sad and experiencing a sense of guilt and shame” you have information on what’s going on internally and how to manage and deal with the feeling(s). For example, the way you navigate sadness is different than the way you would manage anger or resentment, because they convey different information, and the message is different.
Our thoughts and feelings greatly influence each other. A given situation my trigger a particular thought, which then sparks a particular feeling. We often hold deep-seeded beliefs, which may or not be realistic or accurate.
Mindfulness is noticing without judgment. It’s the awareness that stems from paying attention, purposefully, in the present moment. It entails paying attention, in a particular way, to one’s thoughts, emotions, and experiences. It requires letting go of our tendencies to judge and want to control! We are all capable of practicing mindfulness experientially, we simply have to practice openness and honoring our experiences with compassion and awareness. When you practice mindfulness, you pay attention to only one thing at a time. You are letting go of attempts to suppress or control.
Sit with your emotions as they arise. Notice where in your body you’re feeling them. Is your heart racing? Do you feel wound up? Are you feeling lethargic? Do you feel a pit in your stomach? Listen to these sensations, feel them, appreciate them….