Making Friends with Difficult Emotions

Cultivating a clear awareness of our inner world during moments of strong emotion is a powerful, portable way to step back from the activation, find our calm, and discover a right way forward. Stock

When we find ourselves in the grip of fiery anger, or constricting sadness, or another powerful emotion, what’s often needed is to open up the inner space where we can simply notice what’s going on with ourselves. Yet, in the moment that seems ruled by the emotion (or emotions), we may be unsure how to even begin doing this.

One way to find a wise response is through understanding that difficult emotions like anger, fear, shame, and grief almost always involve a mix of conceptual and somatic (bodily felt) elements. The conceptual part involves the particulars of the situation that is giving rise to the emotions: its “storyline.” The somatic element is the way in which we experience the emotion in our bodies. If we are angry with someone, for example, there is the storyline of what they said or did that triggered our anger—That was unfair / What they said is wrong / They should know better!— and then there is the physical arousal taking place: our pumping heart, the heat in our belly, our shoulder muscles tensing.    

Dealing with Difficult Emotions 

A big reason that difficult emotions are so challenging to work with is that the storyline and the body arousal interact and feed each other. Perhaps we begin to calm down in our bodies, but suddenly we flash on the memory of what caused the anger, and our body becomes aroused all over again. Or our thinking mind starts to gain some perspective on the situation, only to be knocked off-course by a fresh surge of the bodily discomfort that is still present for us.

In processing difficult emotions, we need a way to disentangle the conceptual and somatic elements. Since the conceptual, thinking mind tends to dominate and impede clear awareness of what’s going on in the body, the first step is to pause the storyline. This means deliberately interrupting your thought process about the situation in order to clear a space to just be present for whatever feelings are in the body.

If we are angry with someone, there is the storyline of what they said or did that triggered our anger—That was unfair / What they said is wrong / They should know better!— and then there is the physical arousal taking place: our pumping heart, the heat in our belly, our shoulder muscles tensing.     

A further challenge is that the somatic side of the equation has two different levels. The first includes the overt symptoms of physical arousal, like tensing up with anger, trembling with fear, or sobbing with grief. The second level consists of more subtle sensations, commonly referred to as felt senses, that lie beneath the overt physical sensations and mostly remain invisible to us. It is these hidden felt senses that hold the key to discovering the deeper sources of our anguish and the insights and action steps needed to release their hold on us.

Four Steps for Processing Difficult Emotions

1. Pause the Storyline

Begin by resting your body down into the support of whatever you are seated on. As you do this, pause your stream of thoughts as best you can and simply bring attention to your breathing. Notice how the breath moves in your body as you inhale and exhale. Gradually elongating the out breath will help disperse the immediate intensity of the emotion, allowing the overt symptoms of arousal to subside. Stay with your breathing for as long as you need in order to feel more settled.

Then, shift attention from your breathing to just a gentle, nonjudgmental awareness of the whole inner space of your torso, from your throat down through your chest and solar plexus to your belly and gut.

2. Invite a Felt Sense

The second step is to invite a felt sense of the problem. Begin by briefly recalling the storyline, just enough to make it present for you again. Then let that go and simply sense inside your throat, chest, and belly for a body-feel of the whole matter. You may notice something right away, like an area of constriction or heaviness, achiness or activation. Or there may be nothing much there to begin with. That is not a problem, just be patient and continue to sense gently inside. Remember, you are looking for subtle somatic sensations that can be vague, fragile, or evanescent. You can’t make anything happen, so a friendly, nonjudgmental, welcoming attitude is key.

3. Keep It Company

The third step is to keep the felt sense company. Imagine you are sitting with a young child who is upset about something but isn’t able to say what it is. What’s most important here is to simply be present in a gentle, caring and, above all, patient way. What a felt sense needs more than anything else is simply to be recognized, to be noticed and welcomed, and allowed to be present just as it is.

4. Ask It to Tell You More

The fourth step is to ask the felt sense to tell you more. (Note: This step is optional—often the best thing is just to keep a felt sense friendly company for as long as it needs, or as long as feels right to you.) After you have kept the felt sense company in silence for a period of time, sense whether it might be right to offer it a simple question such as:

What is it needing? (or wanting?)

What is it afraid of? (or worried about?)

What would make it feel better?

What does it want me to know?

How would it feel if this problem were all gone?

You can also try addressing the felt sense directly, like an inner child, as “you.” “What are you worried about?” “What would make you feel better about all this?” With a bit of practice, you’ll get the knack of finding the right questions to elicit a response from the felt sense.

You’ll know it’s working when you get a flash of intuitive insight, an “aha” moment, usually accompanied by a bodily felt release or opening or energy surge of some kind. When this happens, take a few moments to really feel it, take it in, appreciate it fully. Only then, consider the practical implications of whatever insight or release has come. Is there an action step that would feel right in addressing the issue that gave rise to the emotional discomfort? Or perhaps the simple recognition and acceptance of what you have discovered is sufficient to allow you to move on with freed up, fresh energy.