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Get Mindful of Emotions

We all have them. They don't really go away when we ignore them. They are completely inside us, so we might want to pay attention.

We now come to a skill that many of my clients get sick of me bringing up. It is not uncommon for me to mention Emotion Regulation Handout 22 in one of my sessions with a client whom has made progress to the point of nearing the end of Stage 1 DBT. Mindfulness of Current Emotion, in my humble opinion, is one of the most important skills that any of us can learn in life. Experiencing our emotions, both the ones we like and the ones we don't like is essential to a fulfilling life, imho.

We’re going to have to go through a couple of things before we get to the actual skill, just to make sure we are all on the same page. If you already know how to identify emotions, you can skip ahead if you want. It’s not absolutely critical to know what emotion you are experiencing in order experience it, and it is important to learn how to label your emotions so you know what they are doing for you and what to do with them.

All right, the basics. Emotions motivate, validate, and communicate. In my experience, in order to get someone (including myself) on board to experience emotions, I’ve got to make the case for why we would even want to do so. In general emotions give us motivation to DO something. Each emotion has different urges that go along with it. We’ll get to that in a minute. Emotions also validate themselves. Many of us have grown up in VERY invalidating environments in which we were punished, ignored, or abused for having emotions. Problem is, we all have emotions, and they provide us invaluable information about living that we are taught to ignore, avoid, or actively try to create other emotions (like trying to be happy all the time.) And emotions communicate, both to us and to others. Babies facial expressions are hard wired and are the first attempts to communicate needs.

Our different emotions do different things for us. As a matter of fact, if we did not have emotions, not one of us would be alive. Without fear, each of us would have died because we walked off a cliff or got killed by a wild animal or just kept going out into the ocean and drown. If we did not have anger, no one would try to right injustices. If we did not have sadness, we would not have relationships because we would not realize that we missed someone. If we did not have guilt, we would not be able to have any relationships because we would just hurt other people and drive them away. If we did not have disgust, we’d eat things that would make us sick. If we did not have shame, we’d just do things that would make others reject us.

So, emotions are necessary, and you still might not want to experience the more vulnerable ones. Who really wants to experience sadness or fear or shame? I don’t. And if I don’t experience the primary emotions, they are going to show up in ways I really don’t want. If I don’t experience my fear or sadness, they often show up as anger. Ever been mean to someone you care about and realized later that you were really hurt or afraid and not really angry? I have, many times.

We need to experience our emotions so that we don’t suffer unecessarily. There’s an equation that gets shared in DBT often that goes like this -

Pain + nonacceptance = suffering

Pain + acceptance = pain

If we are able to experience the painful emotions fully, then they get to move on. They go away because they have done their work, helped us pay attention to what is needed, and maybe motivated the action or non action that is needed in the moment. This idea is sometimes very difficult to comprehend. Many people have said to me, “I FEEL all the time and it’s unbearable.”

Ok, this part is often difficult as well, it has been for me. Often, we (I do this often) do not truly experience the emotion that is there. We often experience the beginning of an emotion, then we have judgmental thoughts and a secondary emotion and then the thoughts and emotions play together and just keep us pretty miserable. That happens long enough and we get desperate to feel something different and end up doing things we regret.

The handout for Mindfulness of Current Emotion first tells us things not to do. Don’t block or suppress the emotion. Don’t amplify or make it bigger. It tells us to experience the emotion as a wave, rising and then falling.

The second box on the page gives us what to actually do, and, spoiler alert, it’s all about paying attention to our body sensations. Emotions are primarily physical sensations, so in order to experience and have them move on, we must pay attention to our bodies. This is problematic for most of us because we have been taught to ignore our body sensations in a variety of ways. Maybe it’s body image and you’ve come to hate your body. Maybe you have been abused bodily in some way and that has caused you to disconnect from your body sensations because they feel dangerous. Maybe you’ve been told to ‘get over yourself’ or other such messages that have caused you to run from what your body is actually telling you.

Growing up, emotions were never really acknowledge much in my family, maybe just assuming we would figure out what to do with our emotions on our own, I don’t know. I was much more comfortable in a world of ideas, so I lived in my head primarily. That seemed to work for me for a very long time and then it didn’t. I have run away from my emotions through much of my life, sometimes because what I felt was ‘unacceptable.’ Being angry was not something that was really okay. Feeling sad wasn’t really okay either. I mean, I’m a man, so those weren’t things that were really acceptable.

So, this whole mindfulness of current emotion is a skill that can be very difficult to practice and something that is crucial if we want to have a life worth living and a life that is satisfying.

I think it’s important to note that there is a difference between tolerating emotions and actually experiencing them. I’m going to share two examples of my practice of this skill, one that was really intense and one much less intense. I have shared this story before, so if you've already read it, just bear with me if you will.

When I did my first mindfulness retreat, I had an experience of tolerating something and then experiencing it. It was a 5 day, silent mindfulness retreat. One day, in the morning, I sat down on my cushion and began meditation and was bombarded with thoughts and emotions. The prompting sounds silly, I was wearing white socks and only had white socks left in my suitcase. The rules of the retreat had stated to wear, “dark colored clothing and black socks.” My brain started throwing thoughts at me like, “You aren’t following the rules and people are going to think you are an *&^hole because of this, and “People are going to believe you don’t belong here,” and other thoughts similar. I just kept coming back to my breathing and trying to make it through. This happened for several hours until I was able to go in and talk with the Roshi (zen master leading the retreat), at one point breaking down into sobs. I was simply trying to tolerate the experience.

Once I went in and spoke with the Roshi, he called out what was going on. He told me I appeared to be tolerating the distress rather than experiencing the emotion, which he suggested may be shame. That rang true to me, and he mentioned that I probably needed to go and experience the emotion rather than tolerating it. I had the thought, “Of course that’s what I need to do. I help people experience their emotions all the time, why didn’t I think of that?” The answer to that is simply that it did not occur to me.

I went back into the meditation room (called a zendo) and proceeded to pay attention to the physical sensations and to experience those as fully as I could. I noticed tension in my body in several different places. My shoulders were tight, my chest felt constricted, and I had a sense of heaviness on my shoulders and in my abdomen. I also had a image of a round, mostly flat black rock sitting in the middle of my chest. The right side of that rock had a jagged edge. I had the thought, “I don’t like this” and called that a thought and came back to the sensation. Simply trying to notice and experience it as fully as possible. I don’t have any idea how long this process actually took, but I do know that it was done before the meditation period ended. I kept calling the thoughts ‘thoughts’ and coming back to paying attention to the sensations. As I paid attention to them the jagged side of the rock started to become fainter, and a little smoother. Eventually, my mind drifted and when I brought it back, I noticed that the rock had disappeared and then i had a feeling of a weight being lifted. All the heaviness disappeared. The rock disappeared and I felt free. That’s the best way I can describe it.

So, paying attention to the physical sensations and letting those thoughts go had the impact of having the emotion and then it getting to move on. The subtitle for the handout on Mindfulness of Current Emotion says, “Letting go of emotional suffering.” That was my experience in that moment. I stopped suffering and felt freed from that emotion and the thoughts that had been dominating.

For a less intense example, I was sitting out on my back porch yesterday evening and decided to check in with what I was feeling. I noticed a lightness about my body. I noticed the corners of my mouth pulling slightly up. I noticed a sense of some space in my chest. I noticed looseness in my shoulders. I simply sat and noticed for a bit (tbh, probably about 20 seconds would be my guess.) I had a Zoom meeting with someone, so I moved on from the feeling and did that meeting. It was lovely.

I recommend that people do this skill, on purpose, several times a day to get some practice at noticing what you are feeling. For most people, the only way to apply this skill in intense situations is to practice when things are not intense.

Let me know what you think about this post, the blog in general, or what you'd like to see in future installments,

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