This sounds obvious, but is not! It is one of the most important building blocks to mental health; however, no one teaches us how to engage and regulate emotion. In fact, our society discourages us (in many ways) from feeling emotional pain. Most psychological dysfunction stems from unprocessed emotional pain. Emotional pain can surface in many different ways (e.g., overwhelming anxiety/anger/depression, physical pain, negative thoughts/beliefs, etc.) until it is fully experienced. Brene Brown said it best: “Feel the suck!”
Easier said than done! If you have a lot of emotional pain, if you’re in extreme distress or if you feel very numb, I recommend you work with a skilled therapist. Here are some general guidelines to help you “feel the suck”.
- Notice when you have an emotion. If you can, name it (e.g., “I feel sad.”) You might notice the feeling via thoughts, images, physical sensations, and/or urges to do something.
- Observe how your mind responds. The mind often launches into whatever inner story accompanies the emotion (e.g., I’m not ________ enough; I can’t stand this; etc.)
- Redirect your mind away from thoughts and toward sensations in your body. Watch and name the sensation (e.g., my heart feels heavy, my stomach is churning, my shoulders are tense). Notice the quality of the sensation (size, texture, temperature, weight, etc.)
- Breathe and observe the sensation ebb and flow. Often it moves around the body. Let it go wherever it wants to move. Let it shift and change however it wants to change.
- Ask the feeling what it is trying to communicate to you.
- Notice what physical actions, if any, your body wants to make (e.g., run away, hit, push). Slowly execute the action and notice what happens.
- Continue to observe sensation ebb and flow until the feeling starts to settle. If your mind tries to go back to thinking/story mode, re-direct awareness back to your body.
If the feeling does not settle, try shifting your attention to concrete aspects of your environment. (e.g., stand up and name 5 things you can see that are blue; name objects in the room around you).
As you end the exercise, take a few deep breaths and bring awareness to your spine and core. Notice any feelings of lightness, calm or relaxation. Next, bring awareness to your legs and feet. Rock back and forth on your feet and notice the solid feeling of the ground.
Allowing feeling does not just apply to emotional pain. In an effort to avoid pain and fear, many people don’t allow themselves to feel happiness, joy and other positive emotions. Catch yourself feeling positive: notice the feeling and bodily sensation, make room for it, and allow it to linger.