Comforting Unpleasant Emotions
BY: T. Franklin Murphy | May 2014
Mindfulness creates space for unpleasant emotions, giving opportunity for healing and recovery.
"I shouldn't feel this way,” we try to convince ourselves when emotions are strong. In a way, we are right, there is something wrong—that’s the reason behind the emotion. Our body is signaling a loss of homeostatic balance. There is change that needs a behavioral response. We feel pain, so we bark, bite, cower or run. Emotions run their course whether acknowledged or not. The impede normal action and demand a change. Practices of mindfulness bring emotions into awareness, coddle the momentary disruptions with compassion, creates space and allows for a more examined reaction.
Our body reacts favorably to some conditions and adversely to others. We feel strong emotions, but often emotional reactions work quietly beneath the surface. Some reactions are biologically programmed but many reactions stem from implicit and explicit memories of experience. A present experience ignites memories that signal safety or danger to the body.
We have some control of felt experience, but most emotions are automatic and free of choice. The most influential control we can impose on emotion is by mitigating the stressors—skilled living enhances futures. By managing money, and budgeting expenses, we mitigate the stress of paying the monthly bills. When we build trust by following through on commitments, relationship anxieties subside. Present choices create harmony or invite chaos; but even the best choices don’t eliminate pain—we still experience loss, failure and disappointments.
We feel powerful emotions—both positive and negative. A strong emotion blasts through our serenity demanding action; warning that something in the environment needs attention. Unpleasant emotions are essential for survival. The pain of a burn instinctively motivates pulling our hand from the fire. We instinctively try to resolve discomfort. We consciously—or unconsciously—survey the environment and adjustment. But we often error in judgment; ego interferes, protecting the self. If the cause of discomfort is internal, we soothe guilt by projecting the error on an outside cause; the underlying flaw slyly continues to exist, disrupting our lives.
We create stories, place blame, and deny experience to placate the ego. These response to pain, perhaps one effective, now are worn and tattered, preventing necessary insights from opening avenues of change.
"Mindfulness and awareness is saying we need to go in the direction of emotion and learn how to work with its power."
Barry Boyce and Stephanie Domet
We stupidly wage war against our feelings, damning the emotion rather than the cause. Discrediting, ignoring or denying biological functions is not healthy, confusing the body and the mind. The disjointed functioning knocks the system out of whack, creating internal chaos. The mind disconnects from feeling-states of the body. Our body continues to experience stress; we just trained our minds to avoid the feelings.
If our body interprets an experience as threatening, chemicals release and flow through blood streams, feeding muscles and changing body functions —heart rate increases, oxygen in take increases, digestion slows, and glucose is released. We are prepared to respond. But emotions aren’t the enemy. Emotions are the biological process to engage correctly to experience—either seize opportunities or avoid threats.
Consciousness, the minds ability to recognizing feeling states, is an evolutionary anomaly. Outside the human species, other species only marginally enjoy the blessings and curses of consciousness. Awareness properly directed broadens our understanding of the complexity of living, pushing us beyond simple reactivity.
We not only feel but can be aware that we are feeling.
"We can always take a moment—to re-center ourselves in our bodies, acknowledge what we’re feeling, spot our habitual reactions (whether that means erupting when we’re frustrated or silently sulking when we feel criticized), and perhaps decide on a different course of action."
Sharon Salzberg (Tricycle)
Awareness of bodily reactions—emotions—opens deeper explorations into the psyche, discovering connections between the self and the environment. Consciousness isn’t perfect. We misinterpret emotions, intensifying or softening the original feeling. Our thoughts generate secondary emotions; sometimes complicating the true causes of the original reaction.
Our thoughts can spur anger to cover feelings of sadness. We can feel guilty for feeling angry. We may even feel sad about being sad. The first emotion triggered by experience followed by a second emotion generated from the thoughts stirred by the emotion. If in the past we experienced debilitating depression, the initial feelings of sadness signal another wave of impending doom; the signals ignite reactions and then panic, almost guaranteeing another debilitating depression. The first emotion triggers more powerful emotions. When an emotion becomes threatening, we automatically respond to the threat—by freezing, fighting or fleeing.
Sanity and tranquility require a more mindful approach to these emotions. We must interrupt the entrapping cycles of feeling and thinking with mindfulness. Mindfully examining emotions from a safe distance weakens the impact of secondary emotions. Instead of being at war with the original emotion, we become an interested participant, curiously examining the human psyche, both amused and amazed over the feeling of experience. We then can carefully and skeptically exam emotions for causes and constructively implement effective resolutions.
"Consciousness isn’t perfect. We misinterpret emotions, intensifying or softening the original feeling."
Fighting against emotion is frustrating, leaving us discouraged and feeling helpless. Too much resistance and unhealthy adaptations intrude and separate us from feeling experience at the cost of damaged futures.
Mindfulness is a skill, requiring practice and patience. Mindfulness expands emotional intelligence, developing greater control over life. Emotional intelligent responses establish greater social connectedness and intimacy, giving our human soul more of the connections it needs.
With mindfulness, we attend to unpleasant feelings by creating space, diminishing fear and appreciating the greatness of human consciousness. Discomforting emotions will continue to visit—no matter how healthy the choices; but the discomfort is mitigated through the healthy approaches and life becomes more manageable. We learn to work through sadness, fear and anger while continuing to make healthy choices, engaging in pleasurable activities that nurture well-being and improve futures. When feelings determine how we act, life spirals out of control, creates chaos, and generates more of the feelings we desperately seek to avoid. When feelings are only a part of how we act, life becomes organized and purposeful. A felt experience that creates a flourishing life.
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