Have you ever been afraid of experiencing your emotions? Do you ever stop yourself from feeling your feelings to their fullest extent?
The notion of resisting, having difficulty containing, or altogether avoiding emotions is perhaps one of the most common [underlying] reasons people seek therapy. Many people struggle to let themselves feel their feelings, which is different than thinking about them.
This blog aims to open the discussion around experiential avoidance and hopefully provide some self-help strategies for learning how to ride the wave of your emotions; so that you can stop draining your energy trying to avoid them.
Thinking vs. Feeling
Let's start with an analogy; thinking about your emotions is like writing a book about an experience. Depending on the narrative your mind is weaving, it could be a love story or a terrifying tale. In contrast, feeling your emotions is more like riding a rollercoaster or being immersed in an activity, such as playing soccer or painting. There's less analzying, judging, and 'If-thens', and more 'being'.
Feeling your feelings is not necessarily calming or pleasant. Some emotions genuinely feel painful and unpleasant; sometimes excruciatingly so. However, there is a distinction from when we are fighting our feelings and resisting them, or trying to convince ourselves out of them, compared to when we relinquish control, allow them to exist without judging them as "good" or "bad".
In psychology literature, this differentiation is described as "natural" vs. "manufactured" emotions.
Natural emotions are those that occur automatically in response to stimuli. Some automatic responses are inherent in our biology, for example, it may be common for people to feel sadness when they watch an innocent animal being harmed. Other automatic responses may be shaped by our history.
Manufactured emotions are those that arise because of what we tell ourselves about a natural feeling. For example, Sarah feels sad and disappointed that her partner arrived late for their date, however, her sadness turns to worry and hopelessness when she tells herself, "This is the end of our relationship. I knew they didn't care about me."
The mindfulness exercise of riding the wave of emotions aims to help us experience our natural emotions.
Mindfulness of Emotions: Riding the Wave
You might have heard the phrase, 'riding the wave of your emotions' or 'surfing your feelings' before. When we allow our feelings, it's kind of like noticing the beginning sensations or it, preparing ourselves to ride [or feel], then surfing the wave without much thought until we observe the intensity lessen as we reach the shoreline.
Rumination, excessive worrying, and other cognitive distortions, such as self-blame or jumping to conclusions, tends to keep the intensity of our feelings stuck or rising higher.
When we let our bodies feel and respond to those sensations, rather than focus on the self-defeating content that our mind likes to broadcast, then we can start to trust ourselves to feel.
How would your life transform if you weren't afraid of feeling? If you could trust yourself to cope and nurture yourself when needed?
Mindfulness of Emotions Experiment
Small and realistic seems to be the most logical place to start with most goals, so let's try that. Below are two video clips from the movie Up and Good Will Hunting. They were chosen because they are emotionally charged scenes and they could be useful starting places for your practice of surfing an emotional wave - without it being too personal or big.
Try turning off all distractions as you watch these clips to help yourself fully engage in the experience. As you are watching, try observing sensations in your body. Perhaps you'll notice sharp or long waves, or sensations in certain areas of your body.
Try to observe without engaging too much with the thought content attached (e.g., "This scene is stupid", "I'm bored", "What's for dinner tonight?").
See if you can shift your focus between immersing yourself in the clip and noticing shifting sensations or emotional waves inside of you.
There is no correct experience with this exercise. Simply observe your experience without attaching to the content of your thoughts.
Once you are finished, way to go! You've just surfed an emotional wave.