Meeting Difficult Emotions with Compassion

Life is full of incredible difficulties. Amidst the pain and challenge, we experience a range of uncomfortable emotions. We get sad, angry, frustrated, and lonely. We get confused and afraid. When life is going well, some new challenge presents itself and our emotional system sounds the alarm bells or crashes again. 

I’ve been looking for ways to escape the pain of this emotional roller coaster most of my life. When I was in college, there were times when my anxiety became unmanageable. As a young mother, I struggled with depression and eating a whole pizza became my escape. As a businesswoman, I remember being so overwhelmed that the only answer seemed to reside at the bottom of a wine bottle.

The last two years brought new and profound challenges for all of us. In addition to life’s common challenges, we experienced heightened levels of: 

  • fear of illness, death, and loss 
  • individual struggles with money, struggling to find new ways to make living
  • family issues that threaten to erupt when we find ourselves in close quarters
  • actual illness, death, and loss
  • pervasive societal injustice, political polarization, and worsening climate change

Most recently, our hearts have been devastated by the brutal war in Ukraine.

I don’t list these challenges to keep anyone trapped in a state of despair. I list them because it bears repeating – life is really, truly difficult and because it is so, we must meet it with tools that help support us.

I know I’m not alone in trying to traverse this territory. The options we have for avoiding pain are only multiplying. Many of us binge on Netflix, get lost on Facebook, bury ourselves in work, or go shopping.

If only all those tactics worked. In reality, they often make things worse. While there’s nothing inherently wrong with watching movies, looking for ways to connect, or buying the things we need and love, when we do these to avoid pain, the feelings don’t go away. Instead, they just get buried for a while and then erupt at the most inopportune time.

So what do we actually do with all of our feelings, pain, and suffering?

One way to meet those inevitable heart-wrenching moments, fits of rage, and seasonal blues, is with self-compassion. Self-compassion is a  practice of comforting ourselves in the face of any challenge. It’s been scientifically-proven to be effective in this way. It gives us tools to meet all of life with at least a little equanimity.

For over twenty years I’ve found mindfulness and self-compassion to be a refuge and a path to strength and resilience. These practices don’t mask the pain, they give me the tools to move through pain and bounce back from distressing moments. They allow me to move from feeling like a victim of my emotions, to feeling a deepening sense and trust in my inherent resilience. 

These practices make all the difference for me and I would love to share them with you.  

On Tuesday, April 5 we are beginning a new Mindful Self-Compassion class and I would love to have you join us.

Here is one of the practices we teach. Give it a try the next time you’re struggling and see for yourself if it can ease the anxiety. 

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’re 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. And if you’re not clear on the specific label, or you’re feeling a lot at once, it can help to simply say, “this feeling is here right now.” 

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.

3.) 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.


    • 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.


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


    • 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.

I hope this practice is helpful to you. 

May we all be happy and free from suffering.

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