I was standing in a hotel elevator talking to a couple of friends about a workshop on the topic of death and dying when a stranger interrupted with, “Why would anybody want to go to a workshop like that?” I explained how being present to uncomfortable emotional experiences can actually help you to move through pain and feel more alive. The stranger’s reaction reflected the strategies people often use to cope with uncomfortable emotions; avoidance and control are typical ways to alleviate discomfort in the short-term, which often makes for larger problems in the long-term. Problems such as addiction, anxiety, and compulsive overeating are just a few examples of the many issues that can be amplified or caused by the avoidance and control of emotional discomfort.
The desire to seek solutions to the experience of emotional pain is understandable. Years of struggling with self-doubt, anxiety, or feeling unloved can provoke many attempts to relieve the pain. Doing—or consuming—something to “take away the pain” is a theme frequently espoused by modern culture. Simply being present to your pain or discomfort doesn’t appear to be a very attractive proposition. However, intentionally committing to such a process can become a transformative path of healing. And that path isn’t really a solution in the usual way we think about solving problems; it’s a way of being with your pain that can lead to peace, acceptance, and even joy. Futile attempts at solving the perceived problem of emotional pain can lead to discouragement. Relating to your pain in a mindful, compassionate way brings together your mind, body, and heart to support your wellbeing.
With acknowledgement for the complexity of the many emotional problems that may require professional assistance, the following guidelines can illuminate a mindful path through the pain.
Recognizing and acknowledging your pain are acts of mindfulness and self-compassion. Once you recognize it, naming the pain is a good place to start. You might silently tell yourself something like, “Judgment (or sadness, grief, anger, unworthiness, etc.) is here.” Naming the pain or issue is not about taking it personally or adding negative judgments about it. Present-centered attention, openness, and acceptance support a mindful recognition of pain. Acceptance is not the same as tolerating or liking your pain; it’s about accepting the reality of pain’s presence. While recognizing emotional pain might be viewed as an easy step for some people, staying connected to it without reflexively resorting to attempts at avoiding or controlling it might not be so easy. That’s where the skill of restraint comes into play.
Stopping yourself from engaging in attempts at avoiding or controlling your emotional pain can be challenging. Willingness is the essential attitude that supports the exercise of self-restraint. Your willingness to stop what you’re doing and be with a painful experience is contrary to the human tendency to seek solutions to problems. The mind is tricky, and is quick to apply a metaphorical Band-Aid over your pain—checking emails, lapsing into distracting self-judgment, turning on the television, blaming others, taking a drink, or reaching for the donuts are a few of the myriad ways that human beings attempt to solve the unsolvable problem of discomfort. And I call it, “unsolvable” because discomfort is a normal human experience. Experiencing your pain without denying or manipulating it to make it go away can make you more human. Restraining from engaging in a problem solving strategy creates a psychological space for you to revisit your pain in a mindful and compassionate way, as described below.
Instead of telling yourself a story about the pain or analyzing it (e.g., “I’m angry because they really upset me with their lies!” or, “I don’t feel good enough because my parents didn’t value me.”), stay connected to your body and allow yourself to be with the discomfort without trying to manipulate it. Allowing for an embodied experience of emotional pain without creating a story about it can sometimes result in it intensifying or transforming into tears, tension, or increased vulnerability. Again, look out for the tricks of the mind, which may include: self-criticism, negative judgments toward others, self-doubt, and attempts at avoiding or controlling what you’re experiencing.
Revisiting is the heart of the emotional release process, and involves staying with the experience without attempting to bypass it to feel better. Equanimity—a balanced way of viewing your pain beyond good or bad—supports the process of revisiting, as does compassion, which attends to it with care. In fact, this is essentially an act of love and compassion—analogous to a loving mother tending to a child in distress or pain. In making contact with painful emotions, it can be useful to cradle your heart by placing one hand over the center of your chest and your other hand over that hand. At the same time, breathing slowly and mindfully can connect you to your body and the emotional energy that’s moving through you. As long as you’re not overwhelmed by the experience, continue to practice restraint if the mind attempts to divert you from the pain.
It can of course be useful to limit the time spent encountering your pain. This is especially helpful if you’re new to this process or feel greatly challenged by your ability to stay present. Just as a beginning meditator might need to start a 10-minute meditation practice before working up to 20 minutes or longer, give yourself the time and space appropriate for your ability level. As long as taking a break is not a mental manipulation, revisiting your pain in smaller intervals can build greater psychological resilience over time. Go slowly, with mindful attention and compassionate tender care.
Releasing your pain isn’t an active process of getting rid of it or controlling anything. And it’s not even about “you” releasing “it”. Rather, it’s about the “it” (e.g., anger, sadness, grief, self-criticism) releasing “you”—within an appropriate timeframe that’s not based upon what you might want. That’s the time necessary for the processing of emotional energy without your desires, preferences, judgments, or story getting in the way of the process. A release from emotional pain is different than actively letting go of it; it’s more about letting it be, with acceptance and compassion. Believing and trusting in your ability to heal will support you in the process of the pain releasing you from its grip. Self-acceptance and patience are the attitudes that further reinforce the release.
An increased sense of vulnerability can be a natural outcome of releasing emotional pain. Sadness and grief can also be a normal response to this process. Please remember that your willingness to be vulnerable and tender can connect you to the joy of living life with an open heart—deepening your capacity for love, compassion, and equanimity.