We all know that negative emotions can be very painful. Often, we lash out at those around us, turn inward and berate ourselves, or make hasty, foolish decisions to get relief. But while this strategy may provide short-term benefit to us, over the long term it can damage our relationships, eat away at our self-esteem, and trap us in destructive, unhealthy life situations.
Fortunately, there are other, less damaging ways of coping with difficult emotions. For those of us with powerful feelings, they can be a godsend. My three favorites are surprising simple but highly effective.
In this post, I’m going to discuss one of them. In future posts, I’ll share the other two.
As long as I can remember, I’ve experienced strong emotions, some pleasurable, many unpleasant or even soul-crushing. I suspect I was born with a particularly sensitive nervous system. Loud music, harsh lights, fast living, and crowds are hard on me.
When I was in my 20s, I experienced two severe episodes of panic attacks and depression, each lasting about a year. I was so desperate to escape the terrible psychic pain that I tried just about everything to relieve it. Eventually, I was able to recapture my life, but I was always fearful that the overwhelming emotions would return and I’d be back to square one.
Thus, I spent the next 30 years exploring ways to defuse strong negative emotions as soon as they arise, before they can get a grip on me and pull me down.
Here’s one approach:
Invite them to Dinner!
The Buddhist Dinner Party, one of my duppy/uppy cartoons, depicts this approach. In the drawing, the host (who looks suspiciously like me!) is welcoming five of the most challenging emotions to her table:
She is filling their glasses with wine. They are chatting animatedly with one another. The mood in the room is light-hearted and congenial.
This approach isn’t new.
In the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, practitioners are advised to lean into difficult emotions rather than trying to escape from them. This counterintuitive method has transformed people’s lives for hundreds of years.
I know it sounds painful, and it can be, at first. But with practice, you can loosen the hold of your inner demons. As you befriend your feelings, they will no longer be your enemies. They will become old friends, and perhaps your greatest teachers.
- Find a quiet place to sit where you won’t be disturbed. This doesn’t have to be a formal mediation space. It could be the couch in your living room, a chair in your backyard, or an empty stretch of beach.
- Close your eyes and sit quietly. Bring your mind and body into the present moment. Take a few deep, slow breaths. Take a few minutes to simply sit and relax. This can be very difficult if you’re experiencing a particularly overwhelming emotion, but do the best you can.
- Ask yourself: Where is the emotion in my body? Without labeling it as fear, hatred, jealously, etc., just calmly let it be. Is the sensation in the back of your throat? A tight band of pain around your belly?
The idea is to decouple your thoughts from the raw feeling. We tend to escalate feelings with thoughts. If you can interrupt this process, your feelings will lose their fuel and quiet down.
This diagram illustrates how a simple trigger (such as a low grade on an important exam) can escalate into a panic attack.
Can you catch this process midstream? The emotion is just an emotion. Welcome it in. Get curious about it. Quiet your mind. Let the catastrophizing thoughts about it go.
4. Finally, remind yourself that any emotion you’re experiencing is a part of the shared human experience. It has been felt, and is being felt, by millions of others all over the world. You are not alone! Open your heart, with compassion, to others. This takes the focus off you and gives you a wider perspective that also helps.
I suggest sequestering a space in your home where you can practice this simple exercise on a frequent basis. Don’t passively wait for a strong emotion to strike. By practicing with mild negative emotions (e.g. a trifling annoyance), you’ll be better equipped to handle the really big tsunamis when they come.