What do you do when negative emotions show up? If you’re like many of us, your first impulse is to get rid of the bad feeling ASAP. Maybe you turn on the TV to distract yourself, or eat something for comfort. Some people try to change their mood directly by substituting positive thoughts, others use substances to mute the feeling. All of these methods can work in the short run, (which is why we keep using them), but how well do they work over the long haul?
In Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), there’s a name for this unwillingness to feel what you are feeling: “experiential avoidance.” Functionally, all the behaviors above are identical in that they are attempts to escape the discomfort of negative emotion. This would be a sensible strategy if it worked, but there is growing evidence to suggest that these maneuvers accomplish exactly the opposite. Rather than eliminate negative emotion they tend to amplify it.
In this blog post I am going to discuss a 3-step process for working with difficult emotions in a more effective way. Rather than trying to escape the emotion, this approach involves turning toward it with an attitude of curiosity and compassion.
1. Step Outside of Thought
The first step is to notice the thoughts swirling around you. The thoughts can be subtle and hard to detect. Sometimes they show up as images, other times as verbal statements in your head. See if you can catch these thoughts and put them into language.
You might start listing them off: “I am having the thought that _____.” Plug in whatever thought is hounding you. For example:
- “I am having the thought that I am a failure”
- “I am having the thought that things never work out for me”
- “I am having the thought that others are looking down on me” etc…
I sometimes invite clients to write these thoughts down on notecards to get them out and in front of them in a visible form. A thought journal is another useful tool. Through the process of noticing and “externalizing” these thoughts, you are creating some separation between you and the thought. When we are tightly bound to a thought, we tend to take it for reality. In such moments we are seeing from the thought, rather than looking at it, and as a result, the thought permeates our experience of everything. When we recognize that we are caught in a thought, we can “snap out of the trance” and take a step back, observing the thinking process itself as it unfolds.
ACT therapists use the handy verbal technique above for distancing from thoughts (in Acceptance and Commitment Therapy this process of distancing is called defusion). Notice the difference between saying the following to yourself:
- “I am a failure”
- “I am having the thought ‘I am a failure’.”
Can you feel the difference between these two statements when you say them aloud?
Again, negative thoughts aren’t problematic per se – they can become a problem when we become entranced by them and take them for reality. So the first move is to step outside the thought in order to look at it and recognize it for what it is: one of the tens of thousands thoughts our mind generates on a daily basis.
2. Drop into the Body
The next step is to let go of the thoughts and bring your attention to the experience of the emotion unfolding in your body. Buddhist teacher Pema Chodron has written beautifully on how to do this. She talks about “dropping the story and finding the feeling.” The story is whatever your mind is telling you about the meaning of what just happened: “I will never succeed,” “I don’t deserve to be happy,” “This is how it always goes for me,” etc. As long as you remain hooked in this narrative, you aren’t directly experiencing the emotion itself. It may feel like there is a lot of emotion happening, but the replaying of the story is actually a way to avoid feeling the emotion. It appears that rumination and worry are actually attempts to escape the bodily discomfort of negative emotion. Escaping negative emotion seems like a sensible thing to do in the short run, but notice what your experience tells you about the effectiveness of this strategy over the long haul. There is an alternative move you can try: opening up to the emotion and leaning into it.
Emotion shows up in the body as sensations, feelings and urges. You can bring mindful awareness to your emotional experience by answering these three questions:
What am I feeling right now? See if you can find a word that really captures this particular feeling quality you are experiencing. People often find that scanning a list of feeling words is helpful. This process – of being curious about the specific feeling being experienced and trying to find just the right word to express it – is itself transformative. Notice if you can feel any shifting in the emotion as you do this, keeping in mind that the goal here is not to get rid of emotion but to come to know it as it really is.
What sensations am I experiencing in my body right now? Where are they located? What qualities do they have? For example, you may notice that you have an empty, sinking feeling in the center of your chest, or tight bunching of the neck and shoulders. Just stay with this sensation, registering its shape, texture, movement, etc.
What urges do I notice right now? Emotions come with bodily urges to do something. See if you can notice this urge as it arises…carefully observing the internal pull without having to physically act on it. You may notice an urge to run away, to say something spiteful, to throw an object against the wall. Allow yourself to be curious about the bodily feeling of the impulse, without having to physically perform it. You are strengthening new neural pathways in this moment; the old circuitry of reactivity is not being reinforced as you observe (rather than enact) the impulse.
Directing your attention in this way enables you to lean into the emotion and feel it, rather than wall it off. See if you can make space for the emotion and open up to it in a spirit of compassion and curiosity. You may notice that the emotion shifts and stirs within as it runs its natural course. You may also notice that this process does not feel as unbearable as it seemed like it would be when the emotion was being resisted.
For individuals dealing with more significant trauma, it is a good idea to do this work with a therapist who specializes in trauma-informed approaches. This enables you to be supported by a strong and caring therapeutic relationship as you engage in this process.
3. Connect with What’s Most Important to You
Now that you have stepped outside of your thoughts, and opened up to the emotion in the present moment, you are moving with, rather than against, your experience. In this moment of spaciousness and clarity you can freely choose the direction you will take your life through your very next action. It can be helpful in these moments to consider what is most important to you.
You might ask yourself:
- What could I do right now to take a small step in the direction of being the kind of person I want to be?
- What quality (e.g., kindness, creativity, compassion, assertiveness, etc.) do I want to embody in my next move?
You could also put it to yourself like this:
- What is the overarching goal, the goal of goals in my life, that I can take a step toward in this moment? And what would that step look like?
This is where values clarification becomes helpful. Knowing what you want your life to be about provides much needed orientation in moments like this. For example, suppose you’ve been knocked back by feelings of fear or anger in your relationship. After the previous steps of disentangling from thoughts, dropping down into the body and really feeling the emotion as an energetic flow, you now ask yourself: what qualities do I want to embody in this relationship? What kind of relationship do I want to create through what I’m about to do? Suppose it’s important to you to be genuine and to create a relationship characterized by openness and authenticity. A step in that direction may be talking—openly and non-defensively—about what you are feeling with your partner. This is a deliberately chosen, values-based action, and it looks and feels very different from the kind of automatic, defensive behaviors we often engage in when hurt. It’s the kind of action that, step-by-step, over time, builds the kind of life we want to create. And this process begins by working skillfully and courageously with the upsetting thoughts and feelings that arise when life has us on our heels.