Self care - Dealing with difficult emotions

Self care is not just about how we care for our bodies and minds – it’s also about how we care for our emotions.

Think of the last time that you’ve experienced a difficult emotion. Maybe it was anger, frustration, anxiety or sadness. What did you do to cope with it?

If you’re like most of us, you probably felt quite a bit of resistance towards this emotion and tried to get rid of it ASAP, right? Makes sense - difficult emotions can be painful and really uncomfortable.

Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) teaches us that fighting or resisting negative emotions is like struggling when you’re in quicksand. The more you struggle, the deeper you get sucked in.

When we resist a difficult emotion, it tends to attract secondary emotions which create even more psychological suffering for ourselves.

Imagine that you are feeling sad, but you are resisting and struggling with it because you don’t want to experience sadness. Now, in addition to feeling sad, you might start to feel shame as a secondary emotion, because you’re thinking “I shouldn’t be sad – I have so much to be grateful for. I’m such an ungrateful person.”

Secondary emotions are not helpful at all. You end up feeling a lot worse than when you were just feeling sad. Can you see how the initial emotion can escalate just by resisting it?

What to do instead:

Let’s imagine the quicksand scenario again. What is the best way to escape quick sand? By relaxing, staying still and allowing yourself to float to the surface.

When we allow our feelings to be there, letting them come and go without struggle, it takes away the power that those emotions had over us and as a result, they becomes less threatening and unbearable.

Here is an exercise to try next time when you are experiencing a difficult emotion:

1.       Notice the emotion and see if you can just sit with it. Just let it be there. Don’t try to distract yourself. Don’t try to control it. Just let it be.

2.       What is this emotion telling you? What are you feeling?

3.       Say to yourself, “I am noticing that I feel […….. e.g. sad]”.

Be careful not to say “I am sad”. This makes it sound like the emotion is who you are, when in fact it is something impermanent and just passing by.

4.       Scan your body and notice where you feel the feeling most intensely.

5.       Observe this sensation with curiosity. Notice its shape, vibration, temperature.

6.       Breathe into that sensation and make room for it.

7.       Sit quietly with this emotion and sensations for a few more moments, continuing to breathe in to it. Notice how you feel.

Allowing difficult emotions to be there can feel challenging and uncomfortable at first, so be gentle on yourself. Your goal is to increase your capacity to tolerate difficult emotions, with the result that they will have much less of an impact and influence on your life.