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September 7, 2017

How to deal with Difficult Emotions in 3 Steps.

“Overcome any bitterness that may have come because you were not up to the magnitude of the pain entrusted to you. Like the mother of the world who carries the pain of the world in her heart, you are sharing in a certain measure of that cosmic pain, and are called upon to meet it in joy instead of self-pity.” ~ Pir Vilayat Khan, Sufi Master.

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The last year has been one of intense transition for me.

I have been slowly and steadily growing my passion—and therefore my work—in mindfulness after planting the seeds so many years ago.

My spiritual practice and my personal life have also changed. I moved in with my partner and began setting stronger boundaries in toxic situations in my life. I finally learned how to say no and not feel as guilty about it. For someone like me, who has always tried to please everyone and say yes for fear of facing anger, rejection, or abandonment, this was a huge departure from my habitual ways.

Saying no was empowering, but for others in my life, hearing this from me took some getting used to. It caused conflict in some of my closest relationships and, through this, I recognized where I was stuck. As I tried to negotiate emotional minefields and let go of old patterns of guilt, shame, obligation, and an unreasonable sense of responsibility, there were so many difficult and emotional reactions I had to work through within myself and with others.

I am convinced that what made me stronger, in large part, was Mindful Self Compassion (MSC).

I took a course late last year that lasted eight weeks, during which I learned several practices based on the research and work of Kristen Neff and Christopher Germer, who are pioneers in this field. In this course, I learned how to be kinder and more compassionate toward myself.

During this process, I had these realizations about unconditional love:

Love is found beyond judgment and blame.
The enemies of love are hate, fear, doubt, resentment, and shame.
And attachment and expectation are subtle ways in which we may sabotage true love.

As humans, we experience difficult emotions. Rather than listen to our inner critics and beat ourselves up for feeling anger, fear, jealousy, resentment, or attachment, we can bring some compassion toward ourselves to better recognize and embrace our humanity.

According to Kristin Neff, there are three components of self-compassion: mindfulness, self-kindness, and recognizing our common humanity.

“It is always so, when we are unhappy we feel more strongly the unhappiness of others; our feeling is not shattered, but becomes concentrated.” ~ Fyodor Dostoyevsky. 

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One of the meditations I learned in the MSC class that helped me tap into my own sense of self-kindness and an awareness of the tough things I was facing, without judgment, is one that helps us work with difficult emotions.

The three steps in this meditation are:

1. Soften.

Using the mindfulness practice of being with the difficult emotions when they arise, acknowledging their presence, recognizing associated body sensations, and softening around those sensations energetically and by sending breath into those parts of the body, I was able to simply be with whatever arose, even if it felt constricting and tight at first. If I was able to be with it long enough, I noticed it releasing its grip on me until I was able to breathe more easily.

Being with difficult emotions through noticing where we feel their effects in the body—exploring body sensations such as tightness in the chest, a fast heartbeat, heat or coolness, or tension or “holding” in the muscles of the jaw or throat—can help us to develop a richer vocabulary so that we can use labels to identify the difficult experience. This gives us greater perspective and space, so that we may respond from a centered and calm place rather than overreact.

2. Soothe.

This step included placing a hand gently on the area with discomfort such as tight throat or chest, tension in the eyes, jaw, or forehead, and trembling in the limbs.

I would often place a hand on my heart if I was experiencing anxiety as a fast heartbeat. This touch alone calmed me. I would say to myself, “I am suffering right now. I am angry and hurt. I just need to breathe. This will pass.”

Soothing can also be done by breathing through the discomfort and saying comforting phrases like, “This is a moment of suffering. I am in pain. I am afraid right now. I am not alone. Many people feel fear and discomfort. I deserve love and kindness just as much as anyone.” Or, “Ahh. This is what suffering feels like. This is what fear feels like. This is what disappointment feels like.”

3. Allow.

Once we acknowledge the difficult emotions and sensations, and soothe ourselves with words, touch, or breath, we can allow the experience to unfold without resistance, aversion, or clinging.

We notice how it changes and we stay with it, without reacting. It is an opportunity to cultivate self-kindness and to truly be there for ourselves, which is something most of us are not generally taught in our lives.

Allowing was difficult for me to practice, but whenever I was able to do it, I found I had greater patience and less judgment toward myself and others I was in conflict with. Over time, I even felt compassion for people who I initially thought were attacking me. I still did not agree with them, but I was able to respond in a more skillful way.

Rumi says, “This being human is a guest house. Every morning is a new arrival. A joy, a depression, a meanness, some momentary awareness comes as an unexpected visitor…Welcome and entertain them all. Treat each guest honorably. The dark thought, the shame, the malice, meet them at the door laughing, and invite them in. Be grateful for whoever comes, because each has been sent as a guide from beyond.”

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Here is a recording of this meditation.

Use it to help recognize these difficult emotions as “guides from beyond,” sent to teach us something, rather than enemies sent to destroy us.

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Author: Rose Mina Munjee
Image: kizzzbeth/Flickrellevalentine/Flickr 
Editor: Catherine Monkman
Copy Editor: Nicole Cameron
Social Editor: Danielle Beutell

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Rose Mina Munjee