By Andrea Wachter, LMFT
Dealing with painful emotions is one of the most challenging aspects of being human. And, as human beings, we are going to have painful emotions throughout our lives. While we can’t prevent them, we can learn more effective ways of coping with them.
The most common emotions that cause people stress are fear, anger, and sadness. While there are many other words to describe the various emotions that humans feel, those are the three main ones. Happiness is a primary emotion as well, but it doesn’t usually cause stress like the others. Although, it is often our pursuit of happiness that causes us to repress, judge, or avoid our more difficult emotions. Granted, fear, anger and sadness are more challenging to experience than happiness but since they are all part of being human, it is essential to learn how to deal with them in order to avoid depression, chronic anxiety, and addiction.
In my experience as a psychotherapist, I have found that the most common obstacles to overcoming painful emotions are the counterproductive strategies that people use to deal with them. Some people deny their feelings outright, which of course is impossible to sustain given that our feelings cannot be hidden away indefinitely. Others attempt to avoid difficult emotions by using alcohol, drugs, food, or other addictive activities — but are still left with their original pain, in addition to the negative consequences from having used their drug of choice.
Once you learn how to identify, notice, express and treat your feelings, you will be able to heal what you feel. Your emotions will no longer be something to fear or avoid. They will simply become occasional waves that you will know how to ride out. So, if you are someone who has a difficult time dealing with big feelings, here are four steps to help you ride out the waves of emotional pain:
Step 1: Identify Feelings: The first step in learning to heal what you feel is to identify what you are feeling. If you are not well versed in the language of emotions,here is a great list you can refer to. There might be times when you know exactly what you’re feeling. At other times you might have to take a guess. Sometimes you might not have a clue. Don’t worry if you can’t name what you’re feeling; you can still continue to practice the following steps.
Step 2: Notice Sensations: Our feelings are essentially experienced as physical sensations in our body. Often we feel a troubling emotion in our chest or our stomach but sometimes in other parts of the body as well. A common mistake that many people make is to ignore these physical sensations and instead, focus on the thoughts and stories in their minds. I refer to these as Mind Movies. For example, a person who is feeling sad might get stuck in the thought that they will always feel this way and that life is hopeless, when all that is really happening is that they are experiencing sadness. Or someone might be feeling angry at their partner and rather than experience that emotion until they get clarity on what needs to be said, or until it passes, they get lost in the story that their partner is a jerk. It is very seductive to leave our body when we are having big feelings and stay lost in our minds with big stories.
One extremely helpful practice when you are having painful feelings is to notice the sensations in your body with curiosity and without judgment. Simply notice them without attaching any story or thought to them. You might try locating where in your body you feel your emotions and notice what they feel like. It’s so easy to get lost in our thoughts and miss this simple and effective practice of noticing body sensations. Practicing this will often result in quieting the mind and relaxing the body. You still might need or want to talk about your feelings with someone else but experiencing them as bodily sensations without attaching any judgment or story line is an extremely effective and powerful practice to keep in your emotional healing toolkit.
Step 3: Safely Express: Once you have identified what you are feeling, another option can be to safely express that emotion. If it’s sadness, you might need to cry. If it’s fear, you might find it helpful to share or write about it or perhaps come up with a realistic solution. If it’s anger, you might need to find a way to let that emotion out of your body without hurting anyone (or anything of value). Some people benefit from hitting a punching bag, going to a batting cage and hitting some balls, or doing some other type of physical exercise. Others find it helps to release anger by screaming into a pillow, drawing or writing it out on paper (otherwise known as a “rage page”).
If you do decide to talk with someone, hopefully you have one or more safe people in your life with whom you are comfortable sharing your feelings. A safe person is someone who will not judge you, minimize your feelings, or overreact. Whether it’s a friend, a relative or a counselor, the important thing is that you find a safe person you can truly be yourself with.
Step 4: Cultivate a Kind Mind: This step can be challenging for a lot of people because it involves being kind to yourself and this is not a strong suit for everyone. When we are in pain and speak to ourselves in a critical, harsh way, we only make things worse. Imagine if a friend or a child came to you in pain and you criticized or scolded them. They most certainly would not feel better and would likely feel even worse. Not only would they feel the original pain they had revealed to you, they would experience additional pain from your scolding.
Very often, as clients tell me about their pain, they are simultaneously beating themselves up for feeling the way that they are. They’ll say things like, “I hate myself for not being able to stop crying.” “I’m such a wimp!” “I can’t believe I still feel this way.” “I need to get over it.” “I just can’t get it together!” If the internal voice you are using is an unkind one, it obviously doesn’t feel too good, even though it might feel familiar. Criticizing ourselves when we are in pain only creates more pain.
If you struggle with self-compassion and acceptance when you are in pain, consider the following steps:
1) Identify the painful feeling you are experiencing.
2) Say something kind and compassionate to yourself about what you are feeling.
3) Imagine holding your painful feelings like you would a hurt child, a puppy or a kitten.
When I walk clients through this process, it is amazing to see how a more loving response changes people’s experience. Almost immediately, clients tell me that they feel lighter or in less pain. When we are in pain, the last thing we need is self-criticism. What we do need is kindness, compassion, and sometimes a lot of tissues.
It is possible to learn how to identify and notice sensations in your body until they move right through you. It is extremely healing to express your emotions with safe, loving people. And it is highly effective to treat your own painful feelings with kindness and compassion. In these ways you can heal what you feel.