Meeting Unpleasant Emotions – Why on Earth Would We?

Admittedly there are some very good reasons why we avoid unpleasant experiences. To start with, it is an evolutionary survival tactic that we are biologically hard wired with to keep us safe and alive e.g. withdrawing our hand from a hot fire. Our nervous system doesn’t differentiate between inner and outer experience.

Society and our upbringing often discourages certain negative feelings. (“Stiff upper lip”; anger is not lady like; in some families there is the unwritten rule “we don’t talk about anything negative”.)

And of course avoiding difficult feelings makes us feels better! (In the short term anyway). But as a life strategy avoiding and resisting out emotional experience can be highly problematic.

Here are some reasons for “leaning in to difficult feelings” that I have accumulated over my years of submersion in mindfulness and compassion:

  • Negative situations and emotions are a part of life: frankly at least 50% of life! So often we think that our life should be like a Disney movie: that when bad things happen let’s race through to the happy ending. Or that there must be something wrong with us if a bad thing happens. Actually, the unpleasant is part of our life and I want to learn to attend to all aspects of my life whether its pleasant or unpleasant. This is my life!!! The wonder, the grief, the excitement, the boring and the disappointing….whatever is emerging is my life right now. Are you willing to accept the invitation to fully live life?
  • Emotions are signals based on past experience, our constitution and our current situation. By paying close attention to them and reading the information they give us we can pause and notice what is useful in that information and choose considered, wise action rather than react on autopilot. Perhaps the flip side of our difficult emotions might reveal our values… what is really important in our life. Observing and getting a wider perspective on our thoughts and emotions cultivates flexibility and freedom in how we respond.
  • By paying close attention to thoughts triggering emotions and vice versa we can identify patterns, and again reduce our automatically reacting. That way the negative emotions don’t have to “push us around”, even “bully” us.
  • Avoiding the layering or spiralling effect:  There’s a lot of neuroscience now that has shown that that very immediate unpleasant feeling we get, often from a nervous system response like fight/flight/freeze/shutdown only lasts a very short time. Maybe a minute or 2. It might be the sinking feeling in the belly, that rise of heat of anger or bubbling of frustration, that ache in the heart. And you know how it’s human nature to layer on suffering. Because … the unpleasant feeling tone of this is a threat. We want it gone. We resist it. So we have secondary emotions like embarrassment or self anger. Our thoughts turn in on ourselves with self criticism. We try and problem solve our way out of the unpleasantness. There is  research that shows if we can even just gently (tone of voice is super important) label that initial feeling it can stop the spiral of thoughts and emotions. And expanding our emotional vocabulary can actually allow us to  develop more nuanced emotions tailored to the situation.
  • “Pushing down” or resisting negative emotions while unavoidable and appropriate at times uses up a lot of energy (as a GP of 30 years I truly believe it can strongly contribute to fatigue and chronic pain.) It also is the greatest cause of distracting, avoidant, numbing and addictive behaviours. Staying with your emotions (particularly focusing on the body sensations component of emotion) in an accepting and exploratory way usually leads to some sort of change, sometimes a reduction in intensity. Or sometimes the intensity doesn’t decrease but we at least have the experience of kindness and compassion as a kind of ally to help us be with the difficult emotion.
  • Allowing ourselves ( with kindness and equanimity) to be with our emotions related to painful memories as they come up can gradually extinguish the threat/fight/flight reaction coupled with an emotion and rewire the brain so that the memories are actually laid down differently and when they arise again will be less painful. Our most difficult emotions ARE actually related to painful memories. (If you are interested in this look up “memory reconsolidation”).
  • It is certainly possible to live a superficial life without being in contact with our feelings towards life events and people. It’s unlikely that you would have read this far if that is your desire! Learning how to explore your inner experience cultivates self-knowledge and awareness which in turn can increase the fullness, meaning and richness of life. “An unexamined life is a life not worth living”. Socrates.
  • If we learn to tolerate uncomfortable experiences then we may find it easier to take action to make necessary change (which often requires instability, uncertainty and confusion)- otherwise we may find ourselves stuck in situations and relationships.

There are a number of short meditations inspired by different teachers and traditions guided by myself  for “difficult emotions” on the meditation resources page.

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