This is Part II of the series. Read Part I here.
In the first part of this series, I wrote about how we can approach our emotional life with more sanity, trust and balance. It requires a re-framing of certain ideas we may have about emotions, their place and purpose in our lives, the language they ‘speak’, and how to engage with them. In this post, as promised, I’m offering some tips and practice ideas to make it easier and less overwhelming for you to be with your emotions.
Remember that we are cultivating a felt presence, an embodied awareness, whenever we are with our emotions. The overall texture of our awareness is gentle, tender, light (not harsh, judgmental, analytical, or even overly focused). The following tips can be applied whether you are engaging in a micro-moment of personal connection, or giving yourself a longer downtime to decompress and process an emotional experience. You may find some that you are already doing, consciously or unconsciously, or some that are totally new to you and may be the missing ingredient that you need. In any case, I hope you find them helpful, and would love to hear your thoughts and responses in the comments below.
1. Set a clear boundary to give yourself space
In order to be able to feel your emotions, you need to feel safe and protected. Physically this could mean going into a quiet space, a private room, somewhere outdoors where you can be yourself, or being with a trusted person. The idea is to separate yourself in some way from the flow of your ordinary activities and life, so that (1) you are able to connect internally and (2) anything you express is contained in some way, and therefore it won’t affect others. This liberates you to feel as much as you want without worrying about how you look, what other people will think, or whether you’re a bad person for feeling XYZ. It also creates a healthy boundary between your actions and your feelings, so you are less likely to act them out unconsciously or habitually. Inside your bounded space, anything goes; outside it, you are responsible for your actions and your speech.
2. Have an anchor to avoid overwhelm
This could be your breath, something you’re looking at, a sound you can hear, sensations in your body, the feeling of the earth under you or the space around you. You need to discover for yourself what makes you feel safe enough to feel your emotions. The anchor can also be something external, a friend, a pet, a therapist, a support group.
The fear of being overwhelmed is probably one of the most common reasons why we don’t engage with our emotional selves. It’s like we feel there is a dam inside that will burst if we even go anywhere near it. It’s true that could happen; but on the other hand, as long as you are living, more and more water (emotional energy) is accumulating behind that dam anyway. There is no avoiding it, so you might as well start gently releasing some of that flow today, before it builds up even further.
The key to avoiding overwhelm is the skill of pendulation, letting your awareness swing like a pendulum into and out of the center of the storm that is your emotional experience. Or you can ride the waves like a surfer, occasionally dropping down into the undersea depths where it is peaceful and quiet, to recover. Some people feel they go deep into their body, and then rebound out into space, again, to recover. The anchor gives you a way out, so you don’t feel all of your attention getting sucked into too much feeling. This natural in-and-out rhythm is the way emotional experience flows anyway, and discovering it in yourself will help you feel supported and grounded enough to engage with your emotions.
3. Give yourself an outlet to express the energy
By this I don’t necessarily mean to express your emotions to others. But some way that you feel you can let them out from inside you, so things don’t get stuck or bottled up, is helpful. The intention is to create an opportunity for whatever energy is circulating inside you to move through or out of you and be seen, acknowledged, felt, and transformed. The important thing for this is being in a safe, contained space where you can set yourself free from judgment and blame. It is okay to feel however you feel, it doesn’t mean or imply anything bad about you, it’s just what is arising in this moment.
For me the outlet is often movement or sound, tears if they come, or sometimes I’ll journal. Each of us has our own pathways that feel familiar and right, we just have to discover and allow them. Your outlet can vary by the quality of the emotion. For example, when I’m angry, my hands tend to form into fists and then open rapidly, as if I was squeezing something. Sometimes I also get a shaky feeling all along my arms, and the urge to hiss, growl or do a lion’s breath, and to punch or throw something. On the other hand, when I’m sad, I tend to express more through sound—humming or vocalizing. When I’m confused and don’t know how I feel, I tend to journal, and I’ll start by drawing, and then writing as things start to flow. In deep grief or loneliness, I have found walking outside (outlet) and breathing in the fresh air (anchor) helps to keep things moving internally, stopping me from getting bogged down in the depths of depression. These are my ways that I have found work for me, you’ll have to discover your own.
4. Approach your experience with gentleness
The word ‘attend’ comes from the root ‘ten’, which means ‘to stretch’, + ‘ad’, which means ‘towards’. (The word ‘tender’ shares the same root.) When you attend, you are tenderly reaching your awareness towards something, in this case the emotional energy moving through you. Often the lightest attention is best, because our emotions can be shy or skittish, especially if we’ve been heavy-handed with them in the past.
Simply giving yourself space, breathing, being with, is enough. You don’t need to analyse, pick apart, deconstruct, persuade, or anything of the sort. In fact, the less interference the better. It is a practice in itself to ‘descend’ from the thinking state into the feeling state. When an emotion arises, take it as a call to come down out of your head and into your heart, your belly, your skin, your bones. Cultivate the art of gentle attention to your body, to where you are actually feeling the emotion. Be as if you were with a small animal, or a young child. When it comes to emotional intelligence, often your presence matters more than your actions. This is a skill that can be nurtured and cultivated over a whole life, so why not start now?
5. Allow your natural rhythm in and out of the feeling(s)
You may notice that when you get emotional, your attention jumps around all over the place, between the various physical and energetic body sensations, inner and outer movements (like breathing, crying, shouting gesticulating), memories of whatever triggered the feeling, anxious thoughts about how it’s going to be, mental rehearsals of what you’d like to say to them…and so on. This is completely normal and natural. Your nervous system is in overdrive, trying to rapidly process a lot of information and return to balance or figure out the best course of action. In energetic terms, you received a massive influx of energy and you don’t know, or are still figuring out, how to properly distribute it through your system. On a side note: this is why after an emotional outburst, you sometimes feel really tired and even need to sleep; and also why after a night’s sleep on an emotion, your outlook can change.
While you are attending to your emotional state, allow your awareness to be all over the place—don’t limit or restrict the movement of your attention in any way. When you are feeling emotional, that is not the time to practice focus or concentration. Even if you happen to be doing a focused meditation and suddenly feel an emotion (it’s quite common), don’t try to override it and ‘go back’ to your focus. Liberate your attention and let your intelligent somatic self bring you back to balance. Go with yourself on an inner rollercoaster, a wild ride, through the pendulum swings…however you perceive it.
There is also a spontaneous rhythm of inner and outer attending. It is normal and healthy to go back and forth between feeling the emotion and registering the world around and outside you. In fact, that’s the whole point of having an anchor in the first place. When you give yourself an anchor and an outlet, you will instinctively return to them whenever you need to. So let your attention ping-pong around until it naturally settles. This is often the hardest part because it requires losing control a little bit (internally, not externally). But when you allow the process to unfold naturally and without interference, you’ll come through the other side of your emotional experience quicker and more easily than if you “try too hard” to calm yourself down or force yourself to feel differently.
6. Have a way out so you feel safe
It’s up to you to approach the boundary of how much you can handle right now, and back away when it’s too much for you. This is the micro-skill of managing intensity. You don’t have to go through or into everything all at once. You can take it step-by-step and just attend to what’s arising in this moment, until you feel it’s enough. Your body and mind are intelligent enough to prioritise whatever they want you to deal with and present that to you first, and you can come back to the rest later. It can help to set a timer or ask someone to call you after a while, to ‘bring you out’. Always give yourself an extra buffer time before you need to start doing something else, so you don’t feel rushed and your nervous system has the chance to settle and integrate properly.
7. Accept the hangover
It is normal after attending to your emotions to feel a little shaky, tender, vulnerable, raw… that’s part of life, part of being human. It’s a kind of energetic hangover that signifies you are internally still processing things. So take it easy, be generous with yourself, give yourself time and space, and accept that you might feel low for a while (but not forever.) Everybody has their own rhythm of restoration, but usually after a night’s rest, in a few hours, or sometimes even within minutes you can start to feel more like yourself again.
Learning to self-regulate emotionally is one of the most important life skills we can develop. It’s pretty much a superpower. Shifting out of conditioned behaviors that encourage stifling or distracting yourself from emotions can be challenging. But it is vital that we embrace the ups-and-downs that come with living life as a feeling human being. Cutting ourselves off from emotions is cutting ourselves off from life.
Many of us don’t really know how to connect with our emotional self. We’ve either never been taught, or if we’re lucky have gathered bits and pieces of useful information from here and there and are muddling our way through (kind of what I’m doing in this series, just in a way that seems organized to me ;). That is totally normal, and part of being human. This kind of learning, the practical wisdom that we embody in daily life, never really ends. It’s an ongoing process, probably a lifelong one.
I hope that this guide gave you something helpful, or at least some confidence in your own process and learning around emotions. Let me know in the comments below what you think: was there anything new here to you? Is there anything you want to try, or that you disagree with? What are your ways to help yourself process your emotions?
Here is an audio recording of a guided meditation I led during a live session, called Breath of the Heart. It’s a breath-based meditation for connection and compassion that may be soothing in moments of stress or emotional upheaval. I hope it helps you find some balance and space and give yourself care.
As usual, in writing this post I have been inspired to create a couple more on different branches of emotional intelligence. Once they are up, I will link them here. One of them will likely be about how to use emotions to explore your own beliefs, values and needs more deeply. This is a great practice for emotions that recur, or when you notice that you get triggered by the same thing over and over again. The other will be about how connecting with the 5 Elements (Earth, Water, Fire, Air and Space) can be supportive during emotional experience. Stay tuned, and thank you for reading.
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