What if there was no such thing as a “bad” emotion?
Would that change your behavior? Would it impact your self-esteem if you did not label emotions as “good” or “bad”?
This is a question I encounter often in my practice as a psychotherapist. It’s not uncommon for a client to ask, “How do I get rid of this emotion?” While I can empathize with the plea, I know that trying to eliminate certain feelings is akin to rolling a boulder up a hill – the more we try to push them away, the more they persist.
The truth is, feelings will show up whether we want them to or not. It’s impossible to go through life without feeling hurt, angry, sad, jealous, shame, frustration, and fear.
We often regard these emotions as negative, yet I prefer to refer to them as uncomfortable. This may seem like semantics, but in my experience when we label them “negative,” our brains tell us to distract, avoid, tamp down or ignore them. And yet, when we do so, we feed our fear of them because we never get to find out what they are trying to convey.
As Gabor Maté, a noted Canadian addiction expert, says our “attempt to escape from pain causes more pain.”
Finding harmony with hard feelings
“Emotions control you when you fear them,” says Aurena Green, a clinical mental health counselor who works at the Viva Center in Northern Virginia. Green learned through her own therapy how to open up to uncomfortable feelings, and tune in to what they were communicating to her .
“The field of mental health has historically stigmatized certain painful feelings and sought to eliminate them,” says Green. “More and more we see that reducing the fear, rather than the feeling itself, actually leads to less distress,” she says. Research increasingly backs this premise.
In her own practice, Green uses narrative therapy, among other approaches, to help clients be curious, as opposed to afraid of, certain emotions. Narrative therapy can help people view emotions as part of their overall experience (e.g. I am a person who sometimes feels depressed), rather than a core component of their identity (e.g. “I am a depressed person.”)
Licensed Marriage and Family therapist Robyn Huntley explains that narrative therapy “recasts [a] problem as its own separate character in the client’s story … [which] can be extremely helpful in reducing blame, shame, and hopelessness.
Boosting our emotional bandwidth
Green also employs breathing exercises and visualizations from her yoga teacher training to help clients accept emotions they might otherwise seek to avoid. She states that by using the tools of the body – movement, breath, thoughts – clients can grow the capacity to engage with difficult feelings and alter their impact.
For example, Green explains, rapid breathing can send the message to the brain “I’m anxious,” whereas a slower, deeper breath can help the nervous system relax a bit. Similarly, teaching the mind to regard thoughts such as, “I’m an anxious person” as merely a collection of words rather than a statement of fact can further help change the way a person responds to the thoughts and their associated feelings.
“Creating a dialogue with our pain allows us to better understand it and what it needs. Freedom comes with accepting that difficult emotions are going to cycle in and out sometimes. In doing this, we create a more adaptive dynamic with both our pain and ourselves,” Green says.
If you find yourself struggling with challenging emotions, you are not alone. Viva is here to support you on your journey to creating a healthy relationship with your own ebbs and flows. In addition, you can find a myriad of free resources for support via the Resilient Brain Project.
Some exercises from Aurena for being curious about feelings:
Example 1: Write about a painful/distressing event or episode in your life in the third person using it, he, or she. Notice if and how it feels different to think about the issue from this perspective.
Example 2: Take a moment to think about a persistent challenging emotion that has been coming up for you lately (shame, guilt, sadness, anger). Picture this emotion as a hurt child coming to your door. Invite them in. Lead them to your table and ask them to sit with you. Ask them what brought them here. Be gentle. Be quiet. Listen. This child has something to say.
Regina Tosca, LICSW is a therapist at the Viva Center in Washington, DC. She works with people experiencing grief and loss, including from their work in animal welfare. Other blogs by Regina include “No Holiday Hugs: How can you cope with lack of touch?” and “Cognitive Tips for Chronic Pain Management.”