Meeting Difficult Emotions with Compassion

Life is just hard sometimes. We get sad, angry, frustrated, lonely, and afraid—and the events of the last year may be providing us with a real test. 

I have a long history of running away from pain. 

When I was in college, there were times when my anxiety hit the roof and I would do just about anything to get away from it. As a young mother, I struggled with depression, and there were times when I would eat a whole pizza so I wouldn’t have to feel it. As a business person, I can remember being super overwhelmed and leaving work early to have a glass of wine (or two).

In today’s world, we have even more choices for distraction. We can binge on Netflix, get lost on Facebook, cannabis is legal, and there are much more interesting things to eat than pizza. 

If only all those tactics worked—but they don’t. The feelings don’t go away; they just get buried for a while, take their vitamins, and get ready to erupt in a Mount Vesuvius moment, usually at the most inopportune time.

One way to meet those inevitable heart-wrenching moments, fits of rage, and “old lonesome blues” is with self-compassion. Self-compassion is a practice of comforting ourselves when life hands us proverbial lemons. It gives us tools to meet whatever comes our way with at least a little equanimity.

This year was a test for all of us: Fear of getting a virus that might kill us or those we love, struggles with money, family issues that erupt when we find ourselves in too close of quarters, and the anxiety and worry that all of this brings. I’ve tasted all of that this year, and more, and it has been the skills of self-kindness that have gotten me through. 

Tomorrow we are beginning a new Mindful Self-Compassion class, and I would love to share these powerful practices with you. 

Here is one of the practices we teach; give it a try the next time you are struggling, and see for yourself if it can ease the anxiety and struggle.

Five Steps for Meeting Difficult Emotions with Compassion

1.) Label the emotion.

“If you can name it, you can tame it.” By naming the emotion, we are able to step out of the flood and regain our sense of equilibrium. When I identify sadness as the main emotion I’m experiencing, it doesn’t stop the heartache, but it does make it feel less overwhelming.

In 2007, Neuroscientist David Creswell and colleagues discovered that when we label difficult emotions, activity in the amygdala—the threat system in the brain—becomes less active and less likely to trigger a stress reaction in the body.

Remember to label your emotions with gentleness, even if they are hard emotions.

2.) Be mindful of emotions in the body.

“If you feel it, you start to heal it.” By finding the sadness in my body, I can stay with the feeling and let it move and change. My body is willing to begin to let go, even though my mind isn’t.

Emotions have mental and physical components—both thoughts and body sensations. For example, when we are angry, we might spend a lot of time justifying our position and planning what we will or should have said. We may also feel our jaw clenching or a knot in the belly as the body prepares to fight.

By going right to the sensations in the body, we can slow things down without escalating the anger with our thoughts. When we can anchor our awareness in our body, the difficult emotion often begins to change.

Next, bring loving-kindness and compassion to your experience with Soften-Soothe-Allow.

Soften-Soothe-Allow is a compassionate response to difficult emotions we may find in the body.

3.) Soften.

    • Softening the body is physically compassionate.
    • By feeling the ache in my chest and inviting it to soften just a little around the edges, it starts to ease.

4.) Soothe.

    • Soothing ourselves is emotionally compassionate.
    • Saying some soothing words to myself and placing my hand on my heart helps to soften the emotion.

5.) Allow.

    • Allowing discomfort to continue is mentally compassionate.
    • By simply acknowledging that it is okay to feel the pain and to let it be there, my mind begins to rest.

The paradox with self-compassion is that we are not giving ourselves compassion to make the pain go away; we are giving ourselves compassion and kindness because we are in pain. And, as our capacity for self-compassion grows, the pain will often lessen or subside on its own.

May we all be happy and free from suffering.

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