6 Steps To Managing Difficult Emotions
Ever tried to hide your emotions? Suppress them? Reject them? Not so easy hey! That’s because emotion is the energy-in-motion generated by our body when we create meaning about our lived experience. Emotion arises when what actually happens in our experience differs to our expectations, beliefs, assumptions and understanding of what we think should happen.
Yes! Because we create our meaning, we create our emotions. As adults, one of our greatest powers is to accept responsibility for our emotional experience. When we do this, we empower ourselves to choose what meaning we bring to any given situation and in doing so, we get to choose our emotional response.
To do this, requires emotional awareness, and a willingness to step into emotional discomfort. So what Is emotional awareness? Daniel Goleman, a pioneer in emotional intelligence, describes it as “the capacity for recognising our own emotions and those of others, for motivating ourselves for managing our emotions well in ourselves and in our relationships.”
Daniel is emphasising two key points. Firstly that emotional awareness involves connecting with our own emotional experience and secondly, that it requires our capacity to regulate a contextually appropriate and balanced emotional response.
It is difficult to support others to develop their emotional capacity, if we don’t give ourselves permission to accept and be with our own emotional experience. And because we are the mirror by which our children develop their capacity for emotional regulation, being able to communicate and relate with emotional awareness is key.
We’ve learnt from our childhood experiences to categorise emotions as ‘good’ or ‘bad’, ‘acceptable’ or ‘unacceptable’, the emotions that buy us a positive response, love and appreciation, and those that have us fearing rejection and disconnection. We have many beliefs about our emotions and how they define us. When we identify with our emotional experience, we define ourselves accordingly. Since we live in a cultural age that values positivity, permitting ourselves to acknowledge and experience the ‘bad’, ‘unacceptable’ – difficult emotions, can feel vulnerable.
Yet all emotions are calling us to understand something deeper about ourselves, something about others. Every emotion has a positive intention that is calling for our attention, and despite this we spend a life-time building habituated avoidance strategies that lie largely outside of our conscious awareness.
The paradox here is that trying to control our experience of difficult emotions inevitably has us feeling out of control and experiencing less from living. When we numb ourselves to one emotion, we numb ourselves to all of them since all emotions follow a common neural pathway for their expression. We embody the symptoms of stress, tension and overwhelm that result from not paying attention to our emotional experience.
Yet, paying attention to and bringing acceptance to our internal experience - leaning into emotional discomfort, is a pathway to a healthier, calmer and balanced existence. When we permit ourselves to accept all emotions, we learn to listen to ourselves and inquire into our own experience bringing greater understanding and compassion for ourselves and others.
The deep understanding that emotional awareness provides, gives us greater propensity to influence, relate and connect with others with compassion and empathy. It enables us to navigate uncertainty and stress and in doing so build resilience and inner calm.
When we give ourselves permission to experience what we call ‘difficult’ emotions, we open our hearts to awareness, understanding, acceptance and compassion for what we experience within ourselves and in others. We teach ourselves and our children that ‘we have emotions’, but ‘we are not our emotions’. We embrace emotional experiences as opportunities to learn, influence and connect deeply.
Emotional awareness is not a static trait, rather it is a learned process that can be cultivated at any point in our lives. Building the capacity for emotional awareness in ourselves and our children takes patience, understanding and is an ongoing process of inquiry that requires integration into our daily way of living.
Six Steps To Emotional Awareness
Here you direct your attention towards your internal experience. Ask yourself ‘where am I experiencing this emotion in my body? How does this emotion show up within me? Awareness comes by staying with and being present to the energy-in-motion, taking your experience for what it is and not trying to change it.
Your difficult emotions are telling you something. Acknowledge for yourself ‘I’m experiencing something that is difficult for me right now. Ask yourself ‘what could I learn and understand by being with this experience?’ Remember you are experiencing an emotion but you are not your emotion. So, for example instead of saying ‘I am angry’, say ‘this is anger I am experiencing’. De-identifying from your emotion will help you to stay present to the emotion and begin the process of acceptance.
Can you give yourself permission to accept and experience this emotion for what it is, and not deny it? Bringing compassion and non-judgement for what you are experiencing will help move your mindset towards curiosity, and away from self-criticism. Consider what you might say to a loved one experiencing this, and offer those same frames of expression for yourself. You may ask yourself ‘what is at risk to me if I permit myself to accept this emotional experience? How do I know this to be true?’ What could I learn by giving myself permission?’
Witness and observe your emotional experience with attention, patience and self-compassion. Notice how the energy-in-motion is moving within your body. What are you saying to yourself? What is your mind wanting to pay attention to – blame? Doing? Denial? Trying to predict the future? Notice the patterns of avoiding your emotional experience wanting to arise. As you practice this you’ll notice that your emotions pass and with time you’ll experience them more fleetingly. A sense of expansiveness comes as you begin to re-frame your relationship with this emotion
Inquiry will help you to understand what your emotional experience is on behalf of. Understanding and making sense of the nature of your emotional experience will help with the process of regulation. You may ask yourself ‘In what contexts does this emotion show up? What is the trigger associated with it? What does avoiding this emotional experience give me? What might I be assuming about this experience? What expectations might I have?
Release occurs when you let go of your need to avoid your emotions and let come an openness to being with the outcome and what unfolds.