By Barbara Broggelwirth RDN, CDN
Like any organism we will do our best to avoid feeling pain. Even an amoeba will move away from a toxin in a petri dish. In fact, we would not have evolved for a millennium if we weren’t programed to move away from things that could harm us. Therefore, it is in our best interest to seek only those things that make us feel good, right? No, as a matter of fact, it isn’t. Research has shown that it does not work, or if it does, it doesn’t work for very long. Conversely, we need to lean into the difficult emotions until they pass. This builds resilience.
The difficult emotions we experience are often informative about problem areas, unresolved issues, and potential solutions to problems. Anger or anxiety might tell us that we are in a situation we don’t like or is not serving us. It may also highlight something that we need to change in ourselves, such as creating boundaries. Fear might tell us we have some old issues about security. Anxiety can be positive if it motivates us to live life with purpose, or negative if it debilitates us. Accepting these emotions can lead us to grow past them. After all, the only way to get past something is to go through it. According to Dr. Kristen Neff, PhD, who co-developed an empirically supported training program called Mindful Self-Compassion, there are five stages of acceptance when meeting difficult emotions.
- Resisting – struggling against what comes – “Go Away”
- Exploring – turning toward discomfort with curiosity – “What am I feeling?”
- Tolerating – safely enduring, holding steady – “I don’t like this, but I can stand it.”
- Allowing – letting feelings come and go – “It’s okay, I can make space for this.”
- Befriending – seeing value in difficult emotional experiences – “What can I learn from this?”
Instead of being lost in the emotion, by recognizing we are having the emotion gives us choices on how to respond. There are three helpful strategies for working with difficult emotions:
- Labeling emotions
- Being aware of emotions in the body
- Soften – soothe – allow
Labeling emotions helps us to create space around the feeling. If we name it, we can tame it. It is also important to use phrases such as “this is anger” instead of saying “I am angry,” That way we don’t identify as being the feeling, rather we are just feeling it. Being aware of where the emotion is coming from in the body helps because emotions have mental and physical components. Our thoughts create bodily sensations. For example, we may feel physical tension in our abdomen in response to a stressful situation. Since our thoughts come on very quickly but our bodily sensations can take a little longer to manifest, we may find it easier to work with the physical sensations. When we identify the actual physical sensation of the emotion, the emotion starts to change on its own. The third strategy is to soften into the feeling. It is a compassionate response that allows the emotion to pass through us rather than fearing them. When we fear the emotion, we are less open to them and can barely tolerate the experience.
Remember, this is a practice. Don’t expect it be comfortable at first. Don’t expect to change the emotion, just feel it. And most importantly, if there is a time when you fall back into comfortable habits, practice self-compassion.
The above blog is based upon the work by Dr. Kristen Neff, PhD. You can learn more about her work and programs at www.Selfcompassion.org.
Self-Compassion. (n.d.). Self-Compassion. https://self-compassion.org/
Barbara Broggelwirth RDN, CDN is a registered dietitian nutritionist who works with Bariatric and Medical Weight Management patients to help them achieve their health and weight loss goals.