Do you feel uncomfortable around emotions, yours and other people’s? Do your emotions feel irrational, painful and make you feel too vulnerable? To suggest using mindfulness to become connected to your emotions may be the last thing you want to do. When I encourage people to focus on their emotions I typically hear two responses.
“If I let myself feel – I won’t be able to stop.”
The fear of being swallowed up by your emotions creates a need to avoid them. Of course it never actually happens that emotions don’t stop, but that doesn’t change the tidal wave you fear is ready to descend if you give your emotions any attention. Emotions can be powerful, and can flood your nervous system causing you to panic, go into a rage, and can lead to abuse and violence. It is no wonder that you want to avoid your emotions. Your fear alerts you to shut down emotional experience as soon as it begins to happen. Whatever it is you are feeling has become entwined with the emergency crisis state of your nervous system, and you end up just feeling that instead of the sadness, or anger and eventually real joy and excitement.If you have experienced trauma, your inner world seems frightening and out of control. As soon as that well of emotion is touched, even if it is ever so slightly, you can sense the turmoil rising and want to shut it down or distract immediately. Sometimes it may catch you off guard like a lightning bolt coursing through your body, which just confirms that emotions are dangerous.
“Feeling my feelings never solved anything.”
You may say this if you are someone who has learnt to think your way through things or ignore difficulties as a way of dealing with what is upsetting. Your intellect can be a way of feeling in control and keeping your distance from your feelings. You have become convinced that you can think your way through anything.
But there is a cost to avoiding your emotions
Avoiding your feelings may help prevent you from experiencing pain and discomfort and give you the illusion of control over your situation, but over time, you become empty and alienated.
The more you disconnect from your emotions, the less information you have about your responses to the world and what is important to you.
When you are overwhelmed by trauma, your emotional world remains disjointed unless you have had a safe space to process the different aspects of the experience. You become more and more fearful of emotions because you were overwhelmed during the trauma. When you are overwhelmed, you will tend to shut down emotionally, and all of your emotions will be affected, not just the painful ones. Your vitality is lost leading to a constricted life.
How you become stuck in this cycle.
Fear – avoidance – temporary relief – restricted life.
Mindfulness can help you break this cycle and connect with your vitality.
As you can probably anticipate, I am going to suggest that as you become friends with your emotions, they become more tolerable. Just like friends you build a relationship gradually, hang out with them, get to know them and approach with curiosity. You don’t immediately invite them into your home and let them do what they want. If we use this analogy it is the same with your emotional world; we build safety.
Mindfulness creates safety
- Firstly, we need to develop the skills of regulating emotional activation. To create resources that help us tolerate and calm our emotions when it gets too much. To slow things down and notice from a distance.
- Secondly, you can mindfully learn to pay attention to the urge to avoid discomfort. When you slow down, you can resist the urge to immediately, without thinking try to get rid of sad, angry or frightened feelings. When you can see in-between the spaces, you can notice your urge to withdraw. As you pause, you might see constriction happening in your body to protect yourself, or hold your breath as you tense up. As you notice more, you can work backwards to the beginning of the sensation of emotion rather than only being aware when flooded. When you experience sensation, it is a lot less scary and more manageable.
- Thirdly, when you have these first two in place you can approach the discomfort/emotions and work through it. It is then possible to experience manageable amounts and release stored and stuck emotional energy, and learn to flow with your emotions.