August 13, 2021

How to Work with Big Emotions.


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“Healing is not about feeling better, it’s about getting better at feeling.” ~ Michael Brown


An inevitable part of being human is that we will experience big emotions.

Unfortunately, many of us were socialized since childhood to repress our expressions because they were inconvenient or unwanted by the adults in our lives.

In order to protect your sense of belonging (or even your safety, in some cases), you may have learned not only to internalize emotions, but sometimes even to become numb to them.

While a person might begin their healing journey with the intention of feeling better, the healing actually comes from learning how to feel and work with those big emotions. Doing the inner work does make us feel better—but first we get to feel everything.

Emotions are like a sixth sense. Just like a bat uses sonar to figure out what to move toward and what to move away from, when we tune into our emotions we are given important information about how to move in the world. Emotions tell us about our needs, our desires, and the places within ourselves and our lives that need more attention. When we are not in touch with our emotions, or know how to work with them when they inevitably come up, we miss out on the information that can help us create a healthier, more fulfilling life. 

One roadblock to emotional healing is the well-intentioned yet ill-informed advice about positive thinking that has become so popular in self-help circles.

It is absolutely true that we want to stay aligned with what we desire—a positive outlook on life and a positive sense of self—and it’s true that we can rewire our brains to think more positively. However, the idea that we just need to repeat positive affirmations when we are having big emotional experiences is actually harmful. It invalidates real emotions and bypasses the messy reality of being human. The truth is we can’t escape from emotions, but we can learn how to work with them.

In fact, it’s in that messiness that we often find valuable messages and our own sense of mastery.

Here are four steps I use to work with big emotions (in no particular order):

1. Disidentify with the emotion

When it comes down to it, emotions are electrochemical experiences in the brain and body. Just like a thunderstorm is created by different electrical charges interacting, emotions are like weather that moves through the body. The good news is, weather is always changing, and storms always pass. 

A lot of suffering comes from identifying with what is happening, especially when that is a challenging experience. When we say “I am sad, I am scared, I am angry,” we bind ourselves to these emotions. The truth is that you are not your emotions, you are the space through which sadness, fear, and anger move. Switching this perspective allows space for these emotions to shift and not be fixed in time. 

It can be helpful to remind yourself: “I am having an electrochemical experience. I am the space through which sadness is moving.” This is a practice of connecting to your inner witness and detaching identification with emotions. This does not mean avoiding or repressing emotions, it’s simply changing your relationship with them and not making them part of your identity. 

2. Move the emotions through the body

Emotions are energy in motion. We know from physics that energy is neither created nor destroyed, it simply changes form. We are not meant to contain emotions, we are meant to channel them through our bodies. Emotions, like food, must be digested and released. 

We often think that processing emotions means talking through the story related to the experience. While that is certainly helpful, it doesn’t release the emotional energy that comes up in the body. All emotions manifest physiologically in the body, so we can use the body to help that energy move. 

This process can be supported in the following ways:

>> Breath (a deep belly breath with a sound on the exhale works wonders to move energy)

>> Physical movement (like shaking, punching a pillow, or dancing)

>> Making sounds (such as moaning, wailing, or screaming into a pillow)

>> Crying (as my shamanic teacher says, “Crying is a shower for the soul”)

3. Discover the message

Be curious and loving toward the part of you having the big emotions. We all have different parts of our consciousness, and our bigger emotions are often connected to vulnerable parts of ourselves, like the inner child or inner teenager. Remember, emotions are messengers. Often, big emotions are related to a message that a vulnerable part of you is longing to have heard.

There is a saying, “If it’s hysterical, it’s historical.” Often, the big emotions we are feeling in the present are less about what just happened, and more often linked to old emotions from the past that never had the chance to be expressed and witnessed.

Ask yourself:

>> How old do I feel when I’m feeling this emotion?

>> What is the story behind this emotion?

>> What does the part of me who feels this need?

Once you’ve moved the emotional energy through some of the release techniques described above, you’ll be able to have more clarity. You might even feel able to access the wise adult part of you, or your inner parent, and begin to rewrite those old stories and tend to your unmet needs. 

4. Be loving to yourself

Remember that emotions are completely normal human experiences! So often, people shame themselves for having big emotions, but this is unnecessary (and actually counterproductive). Practice being loving to yourself as you would to a child who feels scared/sad/angry.

Some ways to practice this are:

>> Comforting self-touch, like rubbing circles over your heart, or stroking your hair

>> Loving self-talk, such as “You’re safe, I love you, it makes sense you feel this way, it’s gonna be okay” 

>> Support the body (wrap yourself in a blanket, use ice on the back of the neck to cool down or a heating pad on the low back to provide comfort, drink water or tea)

>> Distract if necessary (go for a walk, or hey, sometimes a Netflix binge is the medicine that’s needed!)

>> Reach out to loved ones you trust

The healing journey is meant to take us deeper into our own truth. Our emotions hold so much wisdom and power. As we learn how to be with and process them, we get to transmute the energy of those emotions into healing. 

This is not to say that it is an easy process. It takes courage and practice to work with big emotions, but it’s worth it.

Without diving into our emotions, we stay on the surface and end up going round and round in circles, recreating situations that trigger these emotions because they need to be witnessed and released. When we are willing to face and feel it all, we also get to feel the sweet release afterward and reap the benefits of newfound insights and wisdom.

As time goes on, you will no longer be afraid of those big emotions, and instead you’ll be able to see them as positive opportunities for self-love and healing. 

“The desire for more positive experience is itself a negative experience. And, paradoxically, the acceptance of one’s negative experience is itself a positive experience.” ~ Mark Manson


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