Healing Painful Emotions
There are moments in life that are frustrating, confusing, scary, and difficult to endure. There are other times where we feel negative emotions like anger, loneliness, jealousy, anxiety, and fear.
In these times, we want to avoid these painful feelings. We may push them down, block them out, drown them out through overworking and other forms of busyness. We distract ourselves with activity, food, drinking, or worse.
All of these strategies add to our suffering in the long run. Avoidance keeps us from living fully, and when we are finally forced to confront these difficult emotions, they may feel more intense and be more difficult to sort out.
For example, I spoke with a woman this week whose mother has Alzheimer’s disease, and she shared with me the story of her mother’s illness. Over the past year, her mom has slowly forgotten her life, memory, history, and children. She has also been forgetting her bodily needs. She doesn’t remember to eat, or dress, or brush her hair. She doesn’t recognize her body’s sensations when she has to go to the bathroom. She needs constant care. And her daughters are heartbroken as they watch this prolonged decline.
This woman began to share with me a conversation that happened between her and her sister.
Sister: I’m so afraid of mom dying.
Woman: Don’t think about it.
Sister: What will we do without her?
Woman: Stop thinking about it!
Sister: I can’t imagine life and our family without her.
Woman: Focus on now. She’s alive now. We’ll figure out the rest when it happens.
What do you think of this conversation? Do you see the sister’s desire to grieve her mother’s current situation and the clear ending? Maybe you’ve been in a situation yourself where someone has told you to “don’t think about it,” “stop being emotional.”
As this story was related to me, I just silently listened. This woman didn’t ask for my opinion or counsel, and so I kept it to myself.
Each woman in this story has a slightly different inner experience regarding their mother and her illness. While the woman I spoke with maybe pushing away her painful feelings of grief, she is also trying to make the most of each moment she does have left with her mother. However, the other sister is deep in grief and maybe feeling unacknowledged and chastised for her suffering.
Instead of ‘turning away’ pain, we can learn to gently ‘turn towards’ what we’re experiencing. We can bring caring, open attention toward the parts of ourselves that are wounded and hurting and make wise choices about responding to ourselves and others.
Here is a process to help you begin healing painful emotions:
1) Stop, find a quiet place, and turn inwards
Once you have become aware of a feeling, stop for a moment. Take a deep breath. Sit with it in a way that allows you to learn what this is emotion is about. Don’t reprimand yourself for having it. Just allow it to be
2) Name the emotion
We can often feel immediate relief by naming the emotion. For example, “I am sad” or “I feel afraid.” “I feel mortal.”
This process of naming helps disentangle the emotions from the situation. In the story above, many emotions are rising in these two women, almost at the level of flooding. These first two steps can help calm the nervous system and help you regain equilibrium.
3) Allow yourself to feel the emotion
Now that you’ve named the emotion allow yourself to feel it. Cry it out, scream it out, whatever it’s requiring. You’ll notice an ebb and flow. The emotion may start slow, then peak like a wave, then begin to subside.
After it has subsided, you can check to see if any other emotions need to be named and felt or move to the next step.
4) Look for the underlying need of the emotion
We often short-change emotions in our culture when we don’t recognize them as data. Emotions tell us that something needs to be felt to know the wise choice that’s waiting for us.
Our emotions may tell us to rest and take care of ourselves while caring for others. They may be trying to connect us with our inner knowing of what can alleviate a situation, improve it, or support those (including ourselves) who are involved. They may also be surfacing an old wound that needs healing.
5) Give yourself what you need
As women, we often stop short of giving ourselves what we need. We may feel rushed and pulled in many directions. Attending to ourselves may feel like a luxury.
Consider this. When going through the safety review on an airplane, flight attendants remind you to put on your own oxygen mask first and then for your children. Why? Because if you can’t breathe, then you can’t actually help anyone else.
6) Be open to the outcome
Now that you have turned inwards, named the emotion, felt it, mined the wisdom, and taken care of what you need – you are more prepared to resume your life and face whatever comes next.
We cannot control what life presents to us; however, we can use our tools to respond in a choiceful manner.