An old friend posted a childhood photo of me on Facebook recently–a photo that brought me back to a painful period of my life. It made me realize how fragile we all are, and how important it is to acknowledge our deep wounds and learn to work with difficult emotions if we want to move on from them.
In that photo, I was wearing a bracelet I bought the year my mother took us to Mexico —my sister and I—while my father moved out of our home. It took me 20 years to finally understand why he left, so for most of my life I’ve carried this burden of shame around, as if I was the reason. This might explain why I got a master’s degree in psychology, or why I might have become so obsessed with yoga and meditation. I was looking for tools to help me come to terms with the pain and confusion caused by a deluded mind dealing with loss. I needed to learn how to work with difficult emotions.
If we have scars like this from childhood, then when we encounter any type of loss in the present–perceived or actual– it can be sheer torture. It doesn’t matter that our rational mind tells us this is just a temporary setback—a minor squall. Our wound—the one that’s been re-opened—tells us it’s the end of life. It tells us what it told us the first time: that no one is coming back to look after us, that we willl have to make our way alone forever, and that we might not survive. It can be the hardest thing in my life to stay with that feeling and not jump to conclusions. It feels intolerable. Like we will break, or blow a fuse. Our insides shrivel and crack like a dried up sponge.
The most important thing to recognize about these experiences is that they are just a set of sensations. When you can experience intense emotion as simply bodily sensation, you can move it through the body to release them. So the most important practice you can do to work with difficult emotions is to learn to read them in the body.
Staying With The Sensations
We might feel like we are going to suffocate to death. Our stomach churns and reels and then tightens into knots. Our chest constricts to the point that we can’t breathe. We can’t sleep or eat. We can’t think clearly—our brain gets fuzzy. Because of this, we can’t communicate clearly with others—can’t connect—so we feel isolated, alone, abandoned by humanity.
Staying with the sensations is challenging, but imperative as the first step to being able to work with, and eventually discharge them.
Because whatever is unfinished will keep repeating itself until we finally work through it, we invite our worst case scenarios into our life again and again and again. And again. We don’t know what we do to keep repeating the same old story. If we did we wouldn’t do it anymore.
Maybe you’ve had failed or difficult relationships as a result of your confusion. It can be incredibly embarrassing. Do you choose relationships that fall into your pattern? Probably. Do you do it consciously, on purpose, willingly? Hell no. Would you change it if you could? Why yes, I believe you would.
But this is the set of issues you were given to work with in this life. The task: to know that you are loveable even when all evidence seems to point to the contrary. We believe the stories we tell ourselves.
What Is The Story You Tell Yourself?
You may work hard to achieve noteworthy things, lead an interesting life, accomplish lots and be a good girl (or boy.) It’s human nature to look for a functional fix that feeds you with other worldly prizes. It works short term and on the surface. But the deeper wound is always there, ready to burst open again with the perfectly aimed jab. A cutting remark, and angry tone, the wrong look, delivered at a vulnerable moment.
You may have tried everything to assuage the feelings that overwhelm you when this happens: drugs, sex, binge eating, alcohol, loud music (which I’m still convinced occasionally helps), art, reading, retreat, nature, writing. Here’s what works for me: yoga, meditation, walks in nature, writing and good old fashioned talks with friends. Yoga and meditation slow down the process enough to let you see what is happening. Once you are able to see clearly what is going on, you are no longer part of the movement. It’s like being able to watch a rip-tide: if you are far away enough from it to identify it, there is not chance of getting swept away in its deadly pull.
Learning To Live With Intensity
Even though these tools do work to lessen the damage done by those triggers–I am living proof to those who have known me throughout this journey– there are deep reservoirs of residue. I am still occasionally catapulted back into those depths, left to thrash about in a murky dark despair. I wish I could tell you otherwise, but this is the truth. It’s not that yoga and meditation practice will make life less intense. On the contrary, they might even make things more intense, but they also teach you how to tune your system so that it is more capable of tolerating the voltage of this intensity.
Here’s another thing. No matter how skilled we get in managing these difficult/painful emotions, (the turnaround time may be measured in hours, rather than months or years) they never, let me repeat: never, stop being painful. Pain is part of life. You can’t avoid it. What you can avoid is the layering of suffering you add on top. Sort of like adding insult to injury—you can skip the insult part.
Next time your inner demon rears its ugly head, try this emergency repair kit to gently guide yourself back from the abyss.
Emergency Tool Kit for Working with Difficult Emotions:
- Stop everything. Don’t act. Sit with it and see if it can be tolerated.
- Breathe and connect to your body. Walk in the woods if possible. Get on your yoga mat.
- Express yourself –writing is what works for me. Just purge on the page and get it all out. No one has to read it, so be as immature and whiny as you want. If you are lucky enough to have a good and trustworthy friend to do this with, go for it.
- Connect—call close friends, even if you don’t necessarily talk about what’s going on. Spend time with your sangha. Sometimes just being with others can shift the energy.
- Take care of your body and mind. Be kind to yourself. Tend to your physical body and environment. Eat good food. Take a bath. If you have to go somewhere to feel more protected and nurtured for a while, do it. A retreat in nature can do wonders to shift a state of mind.
- Know your limits, and when to ask for help. We all need help from time to time, and a professional coach or counselor can often show us things we may miss. Click here to learn how coaching can help.
What is the story you tell yourself? How do you work with the difficult emotions that get triggered? Download the free checklist below to get started on daily habits that support your emotional health and wellbeing.
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10 Daily Habits For Mental Health And Emotional Equilibrium