There is no shortage of self-help work out there that supports us in setting goals and building awareness around habits that are not serving our greatest good.
While we know what we desire, the hard part is actually putting new thoughts and responses into action until they become the new normal.
I find it fascinating to witness the strength of my habits when I am in emotional distress or triggered, and have discovered the practice of mindful embodiment to be the key for creating change while in the grip of emotion.
Here’s how (and why) I use this practice—and three ways you can start as well.
I was in a mood.
I was on the edge of an emotional outburst. I could feel it.
I was tired, eager to get home, and frustrated with myself because I know how to care for myself and I was neglecting some basic self-care needs. I was in a classic High-Beta brain wave state: tunnel vision on “my problems,” shallow breathing, replaying self-talk loops of negativity and darkness, and a general sense of discomfort in my body.
Sitting in the passenger seat, on our way back to Calgary from a weekend visit to Edmonton, I noticed my partner Andrew’s house keys dangling from the car key that we share. We have our own sets of house/work keys that attach to the car key depending on who is driving or who has the car at the time. In that moment, I realized I didn’t know where my keys were. My keys had been attached to the car key on our drive up, but they were not in the car, and they were not in my bag, and I began to feel panic arise.
I recalled that my keys had been in my bag, and Andrew had taken them out the night we arrived so he could go off to visit his friend. I asked him where he put my keys after he switched his keys onto the chain, and he said he put them where all the keys go at that house—in the key bowl by the phone. I could feel my temperature rising and I asked him why he would put my keys there instead of back in my bag where he found them. He brushed off the question and repeated again that the keys go in the key bowl by the phone, adding, “You should have seen them there and grabbed them.”
I was livid! The conversation escalated as I was probing for an apology and for Andrew to take responsibility for leaving the keys somewhere else than where he found them. Andrew, being just as stubborn as me, stood his ground and refused to take any responsibility for my keys still being in Edmonton.
I was yelling now, and Andrew turned to look at me and said, “Why are you acting like such a bitch?”
Now, first of all, he was intentional with his wording. He did not ask me why I was being a bitch, or why I was a bitch—it was an opportunity for me to pause and check in. Why am I acting like such a bitch?
I knew I had lost control of my emotions.
I closed my eyes and turned away from him. I put my mindful embodiment work into practice. I could feel a lot of heat in my body. I could feel a lot of intense energy lifting up from my belly toward my heart and throat. There was depth and an explosive nature to this energy pooling around my heart.
There were tingles or sparks of the occasional burst in my chest, like uncontrollable twitches that would ripple through my whole body. I could feel my breath was shallow and inconsistent. I could feel numbness or lack of sensation in my lower body, and poor posture as I hunched forward and my shoulders curled slightly in.
As I tracked this sensation and focused more deeply on lengthening and calming my breath, my posture opened up and I felt myself begin to settle into my chair. “Hhmm, this is what a bitch feels like,” I thought to myself.
A smile immediately spread across my face as I was overcome with gratitude for this practice, and my sense of humor began to kick in, allowing me to see the joy and comedy in what just happened.
I turned to Andrew and apologized. I told him that it wasn’t actually a big deal; I would call his parents and they would send the keys in the mail ASAP. And I admitted that my emotional outburst was actually not even about the keys. The keys were an excuse to rage. I was tired and had been overthinking and overanalyzing all weekend, and I didn’t have the awareness those few minutes ago to pause and recognize that I had been avoiding my feelings and steeping in negative thoughts.
That was it, the grand key crisis was over.
Why did this work for me and how can you practice this in your daily experience with emotion?
1. Emotion = Energy in Motion
I had an eating disorder compulsion for 20-plus years and have healed that by practicing mindful embodiment, compassion, meditation, and ultimately retraining my relationship with food. I share my story of healing in my book, Be The Change.
While it can seem scary and uncertain to sit with emotion as it arises, the thought to remember is that emotions are energy-in-motion, and they need to move through to completion. What we resist, persists. By avoiding, shaming, or stewing in emotions, we make them stronger. Yet, when we hold loving space for what we are feeling and allow emotions to move through us like a wave, they will subside and an insight for action toward healing and mending will arise. We need to get ourselves back into the Window of Tolerance (i.e. optimal state of presence) as that is where we have access to our higher levels of thinking and problem solving.
Embodied mindfulness and compassionate connection are the gateway to mental health strength training. When we can find calm, create space, and allow whatever is happening to be okay, we increase our resiliency and can safely process new sensation, as well as reinterpret and reintegrate our old, deep thorns that arise in compulsions or the simple and constant waves of emotions.
2. Fatten the Moment
While we cannot control the impulsive reactions that arise, we can control the deliberate response after a mindful pause. To get into the habit of “fattening the moment” between reaction and response, become completely enthralled by your own breath.
Try setting a timer for 90 seconds and aim to breathe in and out 6-10 times in that duration. Find a short pause at the top of your inhales and a short pause at the bottom of your exhales. Keep it steady, as you focus completely on the process of breathing. Try placing one hand on the ground, palm down, and the other hand on your lap, palm up. Notice what it feels like to be grounded and open simultaneously.
How do we do this?
>> Add two seconds to your exhale. Feel your lungs emptying out, your diaphragm lifting, and your body relaxing around the emptiness.
>> Bow your head, fold your body, and move in ways that you would not move if you were actually in physical danger.
>> Get grounded. Try some slow cat/cows, moving with your breath.
>> Hold quiet space to feel your heart rate slow down. Rather than “do something” just for the sake of it, sit and “do nothing” until you feel full-body presence.
>> Practice embodiment as you track and describe sensation within you.
>> Be a witness to the wave as it rises and subsides.
>> Ask yourself thoughtful and high-quality questions that cause pauses and discernment.
What do I need to cultivate safety right now?
What does my body need for nourishment today?
What perspective can I try on here to create more space for what I am noticing?
Who can I connect with to meet my social engagement need?
3. Track sensation
Your body and mind will follow your breath. A focused and deliberate breath will calm the arrival of emotionally charged, implicit memories as you actively imagine creating space for the wave to surface and move through to completion.
Just as in my example above, the problem was not actually about the keys, it was something much deeper than that, and they keys were my excuse at the time.
“The problem is not the problem, it is your relationship to the problem that is the problem.” ~ Micheal Singer
Nothing gets solved while you’re lost in your compulsion. Get out of your head and into the sensations of embodiment. What does it feel like? Stay with it. How does it shift? Observe it without expectation or judgement, and trust that it wants to move, be processed, and be integrated into a more wholesome and healthy relationship as well.
You have to name it to tame it, so observe your sensations and their qualities:
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“It is not fear that stops you from doing the brave and true thing in your daily life. Rather, the problem is avoidance. You want to feel comfortable, so you avoid doing or saying the thing that will evoke fear and other difficult emotions. Avoidance will make you feel less vulnerable in the short run, but it will never make you less afraid.” ~ Harriet Lerner, The Dance of Fear