Meeting Difficult Emotions With Compassion

Read an updated version of this blog post here.

Life is just hard sometimes. We get sad, angry, frustrated, lonely, and afraid.

If you’re like me, you will do everything and anything you can to avoid the pain. Have a glass of wine, get lost in Facebook, go shopping, or eat ten doughnuts. 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 kind of way. Usually, it happens at the worst time.

Another way to meet those inevitable heart-wrenching moments, fits of rage, and “old lonesome blues” is with self-compassion. Self-compassion gives us the tools to begin the healing process. Last week, I had the unwanted opportunity to use those tools.

Zack, our beautiful German Shepherd had been struggling for weeks. We had tried everything we could to help him, but his poor 15-year-old body was just giving out. We finally realized that the kindest thing would be to say goodbye. Kind or not, it felt terrible. The pain in my heart was physical; my body felt heavy, and the tears weren’t going away no matter what strategy I used.

I knew it was time to use the skills for meeting difficult emotions we teach in the Mindful Self-Compassion class, so I began the process. I call it a process because I’ve had to do it over and over again. It won’t bring our beloved pet back, but it is starting to soften the pain. And that’s what I’d like to share with you.

Five Steps for Meeting Difficult Emotions with Compassion

  • Label the Emotion. “If you can name it, you can tame it.” By naming the emotion, I was able to step out of the flood and regain my sense of equilibrium. When I could identify sadness as the main emotion I was experiencing, it didn’t stop the heartache, but it did 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.
  • Be mindful of emotions in the body. “If you feel it, you start to heal it.” By finding the sadness in my body, I could stay with the feeling and let it move and change. My body was willing to begin to let go, even though my mind couldn’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.

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 started to ease.
    • Soothing ourselves is emotionally compassionate.
      • Saying some soothing words to myself and placing my had on my heart helped to soften the emotion.
    • Allowing discomfort to continue is mentally compassionate.
      • By simply acknowledging that it was okay to feel the pain and to let it be there, my mind began 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.

My we all be happy and free from suffering.

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