Your life is enriched by emotions, they add fullness and depth to all you experience. They’re your body's instantaneous response to incoming external and internal messages, information that can inform you, help you to survive, and even thrive. Emotions can also be unreliable, clouding and confusing your perception of what you’re experiencing in the moment due to painful unresolved attachment (relational) wounds and unintegrated traumas. Emotions can derail you, or they can inform and empower you.
Emotions inform you through bodily sensations. You might feel butterflies in your stomach when nervous or excited, a constricted throat when afraid, a tight jaw when holding back feelings of anger, or flushed cheeks when embarrassed. Your emotional states signal how you’re feeling to others through facial expression, posture and gestures.
As an infant you were already learning which emotions generated negative reactions in your parent(s) or caregiver and beginning to minimize or suppress these emotions, whether positive or negative, in order to reduce painful feelings of shame, fear, and rejection. While this helps babies move toward a secure attachment with their parent(s), or to survive in the case of trauma and neglect, suppressing or burying emotions comes at a cost. Eventually they’ll seep out in some other way such as being ruled by negativity or shame, unexpectedly flying off the handle in an explosive rage, feeling numb, developing anxiety, depression, or even physical illness.
When you allow your emotions to inform you, you’re able to observe how you’re feeling while remaining present and maintaining perspective without getting swept away by past hurts or future fears. You can even learn to utilize an emotions energy to help you move through an experience and grow from it. Bringing awareness to what your feeling is the first step toward emotional intelligence.
Fear can show up with the thought of tending to an emotion, especially if it’s one you learned to defend against, and when you find yourself in the grips of an unwelcome emotion it can seem like an eternity. Research shows that sadness, often resulting from events such as accidents or loss, can outlast all other emotions in duration at up to 120 hours. The intense emotion of hatred was second in length dropping to an average of 60 hours, and joy came in third with the potential for 35 hours of all-consuming happiness. Yet most emotions move through you rather quickly. In fact the majority of emotions - fear, boredom, anger, greed, shame, jealousy, enthusiasm, and gratitude to name a few, last on average under 30 minutes. (Verduyn & Lavrijsen's 2014)
This skewed perception of unwelcome emotions being never ending and unbearable exists in part because we tend to fight against our challenging emotions, judging them, and at times ourselves as wrong, unacceptable, and even bad, rather than welcoming these emotions as an opportunity for self-engagement and growth.
Getting To Know You
The next time you experience an unwelcome emotion see if you can view it as an opportunity to get curious:
Begin by dropping your awareness into your body, feeling your weight on the chair or surface supporting you, and your feet making contact with the floor.
Acknowledge what you’re feeling, giving room for the emotion to be without judgment, criticism, or resistance. This is very important because rejecting your thoughts, feelings, and sensations as wrong can lead to deep-rooted guilt and shame. Denying or resisting your unwelcome emotions will only strengthen them, so do your best to simply observe and acknowledge.
Once you've acknowledged what emotion is present, scan your body and locate where this emotion resides. What do you notice in your jaw, throat, shoulders, belly, pelvis, legs, arms, hands, et cetera? Usually one area will call your attention more strongly than the others. If not, pick an area with a sensation you want to focus on, there’s no right or wrong.
Observe any specific qualities to the sensation such as tightening, constriction, empty, numb, heavy, tingly, hot, or cold. Take your time and just notice, again without judgment, where your attention is called and what is present. You may feel a bit overwhelmed at first as you contact sensations, but like emotions, the sensations will move through you with time. If your body wants to move allow it the space to move. If you still feel overwhelmed shift your focus back to grounding and contacting a sense of safety in your environment*.
After you've located and observed the sensation most present, notice what shape it takes in your body. Does the shape shift or stay the same? It may move from one size and shape to another. This movement is a positive indication that it’s not stuck, stay with it.
If you feel tense or constricted visualize your breath gently touching and permeating the sensation of tension. Now find the edges of the shape and see if you can soften around it, entering into that softness and giving it lots of space to simply be. Put aside any stories about yourself as you allow what is present.
What do you notice when you connect to the sensation, then allow it room to simply be?
If you're experiencing discomfort, continue to bring awareness to the soft space around the sensation, and move if you feel a desire to move. If you experience resistance you can work the same way with the resistance then return to the emotion.
How is it to acknowledge and allow the emotion and accompanying sensations without identifying or rejecting?
There is nothing wrong with you for feeling the way you feel. As you inhabit yourself more fully you may begin to see all of your emotions, even the unwelcome ones, as something of value. As you face each emotion with compassion and understanding you’ll continue to gain greater freedom and peace.
*If overwhelm continues there may be trauma present, consider seeking the support of a psychotherapist who specializes in somatic informed trauma treatment.