A psychologist explains how to face emotional challenges using mindfulness, acceptance, and self-compassion.
When I was 15, my mother died in a car accident. Not knowing how to deal with the enormity of my loss and grief, I threw myself into homework and activities, never missing a day of school and trying to control everything in my life.
This strategy succeeded in some ways—I was able to get good grades, for example. But the inner cost of pushing away my grief and sadness showed up in other ways. I became anxious around things I couldn’t control, like unexpected changes of plans and minor injuries. And as I grew older, I started to harbor irrational worries, such as the fear of exposing my baby in utero to toxic fumes when walking past a strange smell. It was not until my first child was born, with the help of a therapist, that I was able to fully grieve the loss of my mother and feel all of the emotions I had spent so many years trying to ward away.
As I write about in my new book, Dancing on the Tightrope, the desire to avoid what’s unpleasant (and seek what’s pleasant) is part of human nature. But avoiding unpleasant emotions—rather than accepting them—only increases our psychological distress, inflexibility, anxiety, and depression, diminishing our well-being.
Research suggests that when we turn toward our cravings, we are less likely to engage in addictive behaviors; when we turn toward our physical pain, we are less likely to be trapped in cycles of chronic pain; when we turn toward our sadness, we are less likely to be stuck in depression; and when we turn toward our anxiety, we are less likely to be paralyzed by it and can find it easier to bear.
Learning to embrace dark emotions brought not only a significant reduction in my anxiety, but an ability to experience the joys of life more fully and a growing trust in my ability to handle life’s challenges. As a therapist, I have also seen tremendous healing with my patients as they have learned to embrace their difficult emotions.
If we want to live more fully and be our most authentic selves, we need to turn towards our pain, not try to suppress it. But what can help us get there? The tools of mindful attention, self-compassion, and acceptance—which all come together in a practice I call “The Door.”
To do this practice yourself, make sure to start with emotions that are not too intense; you might want to work with a skilled therapist, especially for more intense emotions. Here’s what The Door involves.
Step 1: Develop a willingness to open the door
Imagine that you are opening the door and welcoming your emotions in, to come and have a seat somewhere in the room. You can picture this seat as close to or as far away from you as you like. From this perspective, you can take a gentle and curious look at what is there.
Often people will picture their emotions as having some kind of color, shape, or form; sometimes they envision their emotions as cartoon characters or as younger parts of themselves. Part of the practice is simply to accept whatever arrives. This is a new experience for most people. Who wants to let anxiety in the door? Who wants to welcome in sadness or anger? But when we let in whatever arrives, and see it from a bit of a distance, we can take a curious look and explore what is there.
Step 2: Take a curious look at whatever walks in the door
Mindfully observing what we are feeling can help us cope with whatever is before us. It can be useful to name our feelings (Oh, that’s hurt; that’s jealousy; that’s anger) because, as simple as this sounds, we often don’t pay attention to the nuances of what we are feeling; consequently, important information gets lost along the way. Labeling our distressing emotions gives us a way of validating our inner experience, but it has the added benefit of dialing down their intensity. It can also be beneficial to see our emotional “visitors” as temporary guests. Adding the phrase “in this moment” to a statement like “I am feeling stress, anger, or hurt” can help us be with what is there without feeling overwhelmed. Other things you might say to yourself include:
- Can I allow myself to notice how this is showing up in my body and in my thoughts?
- If this feeling or part of me could talk, what might it say?
- What might it want or need?
Being curious rather than fearful or rejecting provides a better lens for understanding your feelings.
Step 3: Give yourself the gift of compassion
Besides pushing away uncomfortable feelings, many of us have been conditioned to judge our emotions in negative ways. We’ve learned that if we show sadness, it’s a sign of weakness; that we are a bad person if we feel anger or jealousy; that we should “move on” when we experience loss. When we come face to face with difficult emotions, we often tell ourselves to buck up and stop being silly or that there’s something wrong with us.
When we practice mindfulness in combination with self-kindness and a recognition of our common humanity (the fact that we all suffer as human beings), we cultivate self-compassion, a quality that has been linked to psychological well-being. To practice self-compassion, imagine sitting with a good friend who is suffering and think about how you might extend a gesture of compassion. What would your body language be like? How might you listen? What sensations would you feel around your heart? Now picture that person extending compassion towards you. What might they say or do? What words would you find comforting or soothing? Chances are, they would not be telling you to cut it out or that you shouldn’t be feeling this way. They might say, “That sounds really hard. I’m here for you.” Or perhaps they might simply extend a hand.
When we can learn to sit mindfully with our own emotions, and bring compassion to whatever we are experiencing, it’s as if we have become that caring friend, sitting with ourselves. Learning to be there for ourselves, through the positive moments as well as the painful ones, can be tremendously healing.
While embracing our dark emotions takes courage and practice, using The Door technique allows us to open to a gift on the other side. Each time we practice being with our difficult emotions, we grow inner resources, learn to trust in our capacity to handle our experiences, develop resilience for moving through life’s challenges, and find ways to pursue what truly matters. Each of us has the power to face what is hard, if we only open the door.