Our uncomfortable emotions are our allies. Though at times excruciatingly painful, they arise in our mind to help us move toward freedom. Learning to befriend the arising discomfort will bring us closer to the peace we seek. We must feel it to heal it.
My client has been in the emotional wilderness of sustained hardship for several months. The insecure relationship with her partner (one is anxious and the other is avoidant) is a constant push and pull, bringing uncomfortable emotions to the surface frequently and unexpectedly, battering her nervous system and depleting her resilience. Recently she decided to breakup with her partner, a courageous and resilient decision that threw her back to square one of the change cycle.
Psychological pain is normal (pssst...everyone has it) because it’s important for our growth and development. However, when we hurt we suppress. And what we resist persists. Therefore, those same uncomfortable emotions my client is seeking to avoid are the key to her freedom and relief. Here’s why:
Our emotions are a constructed response.
Lisa Feldman Barrett, neuroscientist, and author of How Emotions Are Made, is an emotion expert. (TED talk here.) Her extensive research has shown that every moment we’re alive our brain uses mental concepts to simulate the outside world. Our brain also uses this same process to make meaning of the sensations inside our body. Feldman explains,
In effect, our emotions are constructed, and given their meaning, from our life experiences beginning in childhood. Our emotions then evoke thoughts. Our thoughts, in turn, evoke emotions. Our mind extrapolates our experiences and relates them to non-related things, while it is constructing emotions based on predictions.
Our brain simulates emotions and our body responds
From thoughts our brain simulates emotions and our body responds. This cascade happens as such stealth speed that we cannot discern where one begins and the other ends. For example, just from the mere thought of her partner ignoring her, my client's brain simulates anger and resentment while she simultaneously feel tightness in her chest, a rapid heart rate, and a tight jaw.
Emotions are not reactions
We’re not passive recipients of our emotions and sensations; we are active constructors. With this understanding, we can take steps in the moment of emotional discomfort to change our simulation, and thus our response. By regulating our emotions, we can change our brain’s simulation. Here is how:
Step 1: Notice your uncomfortable emotions
It may feel counterintuitive, but embracing the discomfort will bring the relief you seek. When you accept that all humans suffer. When you accept that the only way out is through. And when you accept that this discomfort can be transformed in the surrender, then you will begin to look forward to your discomfort.
Become aware of when you feel an uncomfortable emotion. The first step is always awareness.
Step 2: Identify two sensations in your body
The moment you notice an unpleasant emotion, close your eyes and identify two uncomfortable sensations in your body.
For example, you read an email from your partner stating that they need to work and can no longer take the much anticipated vacation with you. Your brain is now simulating emotions at such speed and your body is responding. You might notice anger. Now, close your eyes and become curious about what you feel in your body. Notice your bodily sensations: a tight chest, difficulty breathing, a closed throat, heat, or heaviness.
Step 3: Let the sensations evolve
Once you notice two uncomfortable sensations in your body, let them evolve -- move, change, transform, grow, shrink, ease, escalate. Your sensations are not static. Your job is to notice what you’re feeling, then sit back like the passenger on a thrill ride and let your body do the driving.
Your body will naturally transform the sensations until you come to ease. The entire process will take less than 2 minutes when you simply remain aware and curious. If you find the sensations are too strong, or that they will not go away, then you’ve still got your hands on the wheel. You’re trying to drive the bus. Let go.
Step 4: Assess your simulation response
Scientists use data to inform theory. You are now the scientist of your own emotions, and it’s time to test your results. Recreate the original scenario that triggered the uncomfortable emotions (e.g., re read the email from your partner.) What do you notice? If you find two uncomfortable sensations, your first attempt at regulation was not effective. Use this opportunity to try again. This time try something a bit differently. Experiment.
Surrender all control
When you can successfully allow your sensations natural evolution in your body, you will permanently transform them. You have the natural ability to regulate your emotions, the art in this practice is to take your hands off the wheel: you are not driving the bus.
Remember, your brain is influenced by the social world in which it is immersed. Your brain is simply doing its job as simulator. Your job is to feel it to heal it. Tune into the simulations early and let your body self-regulate the uncomfortable sensations.
There is a powerful cause and effect relationship between thoughts and emotions. Without this understanding, we become servants to our emotions, with this understanding, we become empowered change-agents.