In 2021, February was for me more than small. It felt as tiny as a sand grain taking into account all the things I had personally and professionally. After a while, I was trapped in a hamster wheel. I kept running like crazy to nowhere fast, although I had precise goals and commitments.
In the middle of February, my family and I went for a week of holidays. Right before going, I asked myself: "How can I enjoy the holiday with my family and coordinate it with all the things I have to do?". Instead of a "holiday feeling" full of joy, I felt stress and anxiety. I began to realize I had to stop for a moment. Spending time with my family is one of the most valuable things for me, and I was about to jeopardize it.
I had to face those unpleasant feelings inside of me. At the same time, embracing and turning them into my teachers and source of strength to find the answer I needed.
Please be aware that what I describe here is only related to unpleasant feelings that are tolerable to be with. If you are dealing with feelings connected with trauma or if it’s not tolerable to sit with unpleasant feelings, in that case, you might benefit from professional medical advice. As a secondary option, it might as well be helpful if you do this process, I describe below, with the assistance of a mindfulness meditation teacher that knows how to deal with trauma using mindfulness techniques.
Why is it important to care about our unpleasant feelings?
Most of us are secretly longing for a life with pleasant feelings, hoping that there will be no hurt or loss if we do the "right" thing—we pursuit the comfort zone of "nice and joyful" experiences. Once an unpleasant event hits us, we struggle to face the subsequent flow of feelings. Sometimes we pretend this flow of unpleasant emotions is non-existent. Nevertheless, these unpleasant feelings will accumulate inside of us every time we ignore them. Resentment expands. Tolerance levels drop. Over time, our emotional scenery may start to feel quite challenging to manage.
I usually imagine my emotional landscape as a parking garage. When I push away my unpleasant feelings and avoid them, I park them somewhere in my emotional parking garage. I park anger and frustration here, resentment or disappointment there. My parking lot is, over time, quite busy and unconsciously full. My heart feels heavy, disconnected and can intensify those unpleasant feelings, leading to demanding emotional states. My reactivity is higher every time a difficult situation occurs. I don't have the emotional openness to select a meaningful choice that aligns with what matters the most to me. My focus or perspective is narrow.
The importance of recognizing our unpleasant feelings, accepting them, and offering them/us kindness is that they travel away from our emotional parking garage. Our heart is lighter and free to hold deeply other feelings like joy and fun. Our sense of connection to ourselves, others, and life itself is stronger, lowering our reactivity towards a challenging event. That gives us the freedom of choice and a certain amount of tranquility to see what is crucial for us at that present moment.
How can I embrace these unpleasant feelings?
1. Stop and Breath
When stressful or disagreeable moments arise, it helps to stop for a moment. Take a few deep breaths and sit with whatever is present: fear, shame, guilt, anger, or sadness. With gentleness and tolerance, may you be open to whatever arises.
2. Identify and name the emotion.
When you feel an unpleasant emotion, be the witness to whatever is present as a separate identity. For that, it helps to acknowledge the emotion and name it. It's crucial to use a language that doesn't identify you as being the feeling itself. You can say "It's anger" instead of "I'm angry," for instance. Speaking like this creates an essential emotional distance between you and the emotion, allowing you to witness the emotion rather than sticking your own self to it. Emotions belong to that present moment you're living; they aren't or define you. You can say to yourself: "It's frustration" or "This is fear."
3. Allow and accept your emotions with kindness.
It's hard and uncomfortable to be with unpleasant feelings as you taste the expansion of powerful emotions around the first feeling that arises. Primarily it can begin with a sense of stress which develops to a cascade of other feelings, like anger or/and frustration. Accepting it as it is; without judging, grasping, controlling, or suppressing the feeling. Feelings are not right or wrong, and they don't need to be fixed. Our brain is naturally programmed to react to triggers or "threats," and that can produce, in a natural way, unpleasant feelings out of reactivity.
Allow feelings to come to the surface, being aware of your body sensations. Accept them as they are and continue to name the new feelings you notice: "Oh, there's frustration too.".
Embrace all feelings with a hand full of compassion. Take emotions involving, for instance, vulnerability or rejection in your arms with compassion and nonjudgment. Visualize embracing or holding your difficult emotion in your arms like a mother soothing and comforting an upset baby or your inner child. You can say with care: "I understand" or "It's OK to feel like this."
4. Realize the Impermanence of emotions.
Acknowledge that all emotions are impermanent. They all come and go like waves in the ocean. They will slowly lose their intensity. Let yourself witness the flow of emotions with kind attention and patience. There's an invitation to observe our emotions as temporary events, realizing that they do not define us.
5. Investigate with care and non-judgmental curiosity.
The next part is an invitation to get in touch with your curiosity about what happened. In a non-judgmental way, uncover your triggers by asking yourself questions like:
- What is the painful/difficult thing I am believing?
- Which was the trigger?
- What were the feelings involved? How did I feel them in my body?
6. Trust and Nurture.
Maybe this time, you only need a sense of care and kindness towards yourself. Perhaps you will discover a meaningful action to be taken or have an important insight.
Trust yourself to find your own path and the appropriate response to a stressful moment in life.
A story I like to remember about facing our unpleasant feelings happened one day, after lunch, after cleaning the kitchen. I was feeling irritated and exhausted because I was sick. Suddenly my child comes with a napkin, and instead of putting it into the wastebasket, he puts it precisely on top of the kitchen bench spreading cooked rice around, and went. I was so much more irritated. I started to tell myself mentally how much work I had to clean everything, that I wanted to rest, and now everything was dirty again! Anger just came to my chest like a fire, burning. I stopped. I practiced being with that anger, irritation, frustration. I felt the sensations in my body, and I named every single feeling. After a short time, I was still feeling all these unpleasant feelings, but they changed, they were less intense. I was aware of the story my mind was telling me about this situation. With renewing clarity, I realized that actually, just a small part of the bench was dirty, not "everything" as my mind was telling me before.
But when you are with these unpleasant feelings, your perspective narrows to the spot you give importance to. The broad perspective is lost in this natural contraction of our senses during stressful moments.
I told the facts to myself. There's a small spot of rice on the bench; I will clean it. That's it. Over. After cleaning up, I was calm, and the angriness was already out of my parking garage.
Pema Chodron once said: "It's very helpful to realize that the emotions we have, the negativity and positivity, are exactly what we need to be fully human, fully awake, and fully alive." The message here is that as human beings, we have the remarkable capability of possessing a broad range of feelings and emotions. Love to care for us and others. A small dose of "inner therapeutical shame" to shed light on how our behavior could hurt someone we care about and that can regulate our social interactions. Feelings are not right or wrong, are not positive or negative in mindfulness. They don't need to be fixed. Life is made precisely of a stream of feelings. That's what makes our life so wonderful and allows us to evolve.
Please, feel free to download the file with the summary of the process I’ve just described. You might print it and put it in a place as a reminder to bring to yourself a compassionate welcome to unpleasant or difficult emotions/feelings. I hope it helps.
May you be safe and happy.
Grateful for your reading,