We find in our pain the pain we all share.
Softening around pain with mercy instead of hardening it with fear,
the heart expands as “my” pain becomes “the” pain.
Odd as it may sound,
when we share the insights arising from our pain
we become more able to honor the pain.
— Stephen Levine, in Unattended Sorrow
Just when the overwhelm of coronavirus quarantine was amplified by the distress and outrage of throngs protesting against the brutal murder of George Floyd, I stared in disbelief at an unfathomable email that appeared in my inbox.
The message contained antiracism resources paired with exercises for ridding oneself of painful emotions in order to find peace and happiness.
Seriously? Even NOW?
A huge motivation for me to write this series about pandemic emotions was that the onslaught of mental health articles that touted mindfulness, exercise, controlling what you can, and gratitude practice were grossly missing the mark. None of them addressed the anguishing, existential emotions that generate the anxiety and/or sluggishness people have been struggling with. They mostly offered advice for distracting from painful feelings, but not for understanding, expressing, and soothing the feelings.
Those articles left many feeling overwhelmed, scared, and alone because their enormous painful emotions didn’t succumb for long to scented body creams or yoga.
Many folks have written to me to let me know how validated and accompanied they’ve felt by my helping them turn toward and understand their big emotions, instead of steering them to find superficial peace and serenity when that was not at all fitting to their experience.
My heart pounded and my hands shook when I tripped across that horrid email tying antiracism to find-some-inner-peace exercises just as I began to write this final article in the pandemic emotion series.
I groaned with outrage.
Coronavirus time was already a time when we needed help to BEAR our emotions, not tools for fixing them or ridding ourselves of them. Adding to COVID a boiling forth of long-disavowed societal trauma does NOT call for exploring inner peace!
That suggestion nauseates me.
A time of collective outrage, sorrow, and reckoning is a time when we need help to FEEL the pain, to EXPRESS the pain, to SHARE the pain. NOT erase it.
Clearly, I was angered by that email.
Following my own instructions (offered in this very pandemic series):
- I held that anger with compassion, understanding that it made sense under the circumstances.
- With curiosity I refined my understanding of the anger and named it accurately as outrage, which is “a powerful feeling of anger aroused by something perceived as an injury, insult, or injustice.”
- I identified that my outrage was about the insult and injustice inherent in the suggestion that people should hide from their pain (so that it would be buried once again), instead of being helped to bear and express their pain in order to be changed by the anguish itself into people of action.
- I stampeded around my block, pounding the outrage into the pavement through my legs.
- I came home and set aside this article and instead wrote a post encouraging people to trust in their capacity to be shattered and therefore changed.
This story is an example of how compassionately allowing, naming, and expressing my emotion led to an adaptive response.
That’s what this final installment in the pandemic emotion series is about: the benefits of expressing your emotions and intentionally soothing emotions that become larger than you can bear.
As presented in earlier parts of this series, if you’re contending with or paralyzed by an emotion:
- Offer yourself kindness and presence by telling yourself the (true) story that your emotion makes sense under the circumstances.
- Become gently curious about what, specifically you’re feeling.
- Notice what your feeling is about.
I’ll show the next step here by revealing how this kind of making sense of your emotions can help you discern what actions, emotional expressions, or distractions will truly help you move through your feelings, or healthily bear your emotional state if it’s ongoing.
The Purpose of Emotional Expression
Contrary to our cultural teachings, expressed emotions don’t hurt you or anyone else. They may be painful, but they don’t HURT you or cause you to hurt anyone else. In fact, emotions evolved to generate action that will help you.
Once expressed, each emotion invites a specific type of adaptive action whose purpose — once accessed, acknowledged, and symbolized — is to change your relationship with your environment in some helpful way.
- anger moves you to set good boundaries or stand up for what you believe;
- fear readies you to fight or escape;
- happiness relaxes you or readies you for striving;
- love facilitates kindness and cooperation;
- grief causes you to pull inward to heal, pushes you to seek support, and generates compassion, gratitude, and care for others who suffer;
- disappointment generates healthy protest and a validation of your desires.
Once you become familiar with expressing your emotions, you’ll notice that your nervous system will naturally oscillate between a need for active, energetic movements and expressions, and a need for pulling-in, being still, restorative movements and expressions. That is, you’ll be able to tap into your own natural rhythms of emotional expression that will make you feel both actively alive and quietly restored.
There are a couple of things to note about emotional expression, though, before we move on to how to go about all this:
1) There’s a difference between core emotion and defensive (or reactive) emotion
– Any emotion can be a core, clean, pure emotion that when expressed will elicit adaptive actions.
– Likewise, any emotion can be a defensive or reactive emotion — an emotion that is sitting on top of some other emotional experience that your unconscious mind is protecting you from. Reactive emotions need to be soothed, moved aside, transformed. They will not elicit adaptive actions in and of themselves.
– Core emotions emerge when your nervous system senses that it’s socially and/or physically safe to feel and express the emotion.
– Reactive emotions emerge when your nervous system senses that socially and/or physically it’s dangerous to feel or express the emotion.
– Reactive emotions can also emerge when you’ve had a life history of being shamed for expressing certain emotions, of having those emotions ignored, or of being left alone when you were feeling big emotions. (That causes your nervous system to perceive that it’s socially unsafe to express your emotion, because of past history more than your present circumstances.)
– It’s when you’re discerning what your emotions are and what they’re about that you might discover that there’s a core emotion peeking out from beneath a top-level reactive emotion.
– It can be helpful to get support for teasing apart core and reactive emotions if you’re having trouble.
2) There’s a difference between expressing emotion and acting out emotion
It’s important to learn the difference between expressing vs. acting out emotions. The adaptive actions emerge from emotional expression. NOT from acting out.
– Expressing emotion is noticing and feeling the emotion in a way that doesn’t overwhelm you, and then deciding whether to express it just to yourself or to a trusted other, or to a person the emotion relates to. (If your emotions are overwhelming you, it’s probably because you’re alone with them. Please find a trusted person, like a good therapist, to help you express your emotions in a manageable way.)
– Acting out emotion is when an emotion arises and generates an impulse to act, and then you go ahead and give in to the emotional impulse without pausing to explore the emotion, and without discerning whether or not the action fits the circumstance.
– Expressing emotion occurs under circumstances of perceived social and physical safety; acting out emotion occurs under circumstances of perceived social or physical danger.
An example of expressing anger is noticing you’re feeling angry, then finding a time to journal about your angry feelings, saying anything and everything you feel without censoring yourself until you feel the intensity of the anger move through you. From there, you’ll probably notice an increase in energy. Then you can discern what that increased energy is leading you toward — an adaptive action such as speaking up to someone who is hurting you, setting a clear boundary, to saying no to something you don’t want to do, etc.
Or if you notice you feel angry, and you pause long enough to know that if you speak to the person you’re angry at you’ll say hurtful, attacking things, so you take a breath and take a break to leave the room until you’re under control enough to express your anger in reasonable words.
An example of acting out anger is feeling anger take you over and giving in to the impulse to yell at someone you care about, hit someone, drive recklessly, speak with contempt, etc.
Expressing emotion leads to adaptive actions. Acting out hurts you and others.
3) The most effective emotional expression emerges from a capacity to be aware of your emotions while you’re feeling them
The purpose of the pandemic emotion series so far — helping you notice your emotions, tell yourself the story about your emotions that generates kindness and presence, discerning what your emotions are and are about — elicits this kind of self-awareness. It’s from this place of emotional self-awareness that you can move into a rewarding experience of emotional expression.
Discern What You NEED: 4 Intentional Aspects of Emotional Expression
If you do the work to be kind to your emotional self and get truly curious about what you’re feeling and what your feelings are about, what comes next is listening.
That is, listen to your feelings, listen to your inner voice, listen to your body, listen to your creative thoughts. If you’re turning toward your emotions with sincere curiosity, one of these avenues will present you with a need.
You’ll find you need different things at different times.
You’ll learn to read whether you need:
- space for feeling,
- space for comfort,
- space for action, or
- space for distraction.
The key to each of these aspects of emotional expression is intentionality. When you notice what you need and you turn toward feeling, comfort, action, or distraction with intention, each aspect of expression is more likely to be effective.
Also, by paying close attention to the accurate emotions you discovered in previous blog posts, you’ll notice the needs you discover precisely match the intensity and flavor of the emotions.
For example, the mental health articles I hate are the ones that tell you if you’re anxious or upset or stressed, you should turn toward comforting or distracting exercises like a warm bath, gratitude practice, or yoga just to calm yourself down — without doing any of the work I’ve suggested so far!
That kind of broad-brush immediate application of comfort and distraction simply covers over painful emotions. It does not move them along or truly comfort you. The emotions will still be hovering under the surface, waiting to burst forth when you stop grasping after serenity.
In fact, responding to an emotion that’s calling for loud sobbing or angry stomping with quiet music and soft tones will be so misattuned to your emotional state that your pain might eventually become even louder and more distressing in order to try to get you to notice what you REALLY need. Or it’ll get pushed underground and morph into depression or anxiety, which are manifestations of unexpressed emotions.
Recognizing and Taking Care of Emotional Expression Needs
Instead of mindlessly covering over your emotions, tuning in to your specific feelings will lead you to discover what that precise emotion needs from you to be fully embodied and expressed, so that it can usher you through to adaptive actions.
I’ll show you how the expressive needs of feeling, comfort, action, and distraction work via a couple of examples.
If you do the work to kindly notice you’re feeling tremendously sad, and you discover that the sadness is specifically a feeling of bereftness, distress about feeling cut off from your social connections:
- You might find that you need feeling — in the form of a good cry. Purposely giving in to that need and taking some time to flop on the bed and sob for a while might feel hugely relieving because your sad part feels seen and understood.
- When you’re finished crying, you might find that you’re spent and tender, and that you need comfort. So you take a warm bath with the specific intention of giving yourself the comfort you desire. Sitting in the bath and receiving the comfort you’re offering yourself will then actually soothe you.
- After you get out of the bath, you might feel more relaxed yet still feel sad because you’re still longing for your people. Yet you might be able to tell that you’re exhausted, and spending any more time feeling sad is going to pull you down into a negative, depressive state. That might mean what you need at this point is intentional distraction. So you make a conscious choice to turn on the TV and watch a movie, truly forgetting yourself for a time. Mindfully choosing to distract yourself like this when everything in you is saying you need a break will be restorative.
This entire sequence is an example of accessing and expressing feeling, seeking comfort, and using distraction in the service of expressing emotion and finding your way through to the adaptive actions of sadness, in this case pulling in to heal and restore.
The story I told in the introduction above — about my outrage in response to the sickening feel-the-peace email — illustrates a different set of needs. Remember that I kindly discovered that I felt outrage about the insult and injustice inherent in the suggestion that people should try to escape from their pain, instead of being helped to bear their anguish and be changed for the better by it.
Once I discerned this outrage:
- I felt intense energy in my body that needed to move. I needed to feel my outrage in a physical way, so I chose to stomp around my block and pound the feeling into the pavement through my legs.
- While I was storming around the block I realized I had to take some action. So when I returned home, I intentionally used my energized mind and body to write a strongly worded post encouraging people to trust in their capacity to be shattered and therefore changed.
- After I wrote the article, I felt spent and tender, so I intentionally turned toward my family for comfort and sat down with them to eat a meal and drink a glass of wine.
This sequence is an example of accessing and expressing feeling, taking choiceful action, and seeking comfort in the service of expressing the emotion and finding my way through to the adaptive action of speaking out against injustice in a way that felt right to me.
Tuning in to your inner world and your emotions like this, and intentionally choosing to feel, comfort, act, ordistractwill eventually lead you to feel enlivened and strong, even if you’re contending with difficult emotions pretty much constantly, like many of us are during this time of so much societal and individual pain.
Because using comfort and distraction intentionally like this can truly soothe you, this process can often prevent the mindless overuse of social media, TV, food, alcohol, and other addictive diversions.
Similarly, choiceful feeling and action elicits real release and relief, so this process might prevent overworking, depression, and anxiety that emerge from blocked access to emotions.
Intentionally Use Your Own Tools
Any tools you like and already use can be effectively harnessed for this kind of feeling, comfort, action, anddistraction process. The whole point is to be aware of what you’re feeling and what that feeling needs, and then to intentionally choose one of your tools that will match the emotion, the need, and their intensity.
- mindfulness practices
- exercise and movement, vigorous or relaxing
- meditation or prayer
- making art, cooking, or any creative expression
- squeezing a pillow or lying on the floor to give the front of your body pressure like a hug
- screaming in the car or into a pillow
- crying in bed or in the car
- falling to your knees in tears
- watching TV, scrolling through social media
- staring at the ceiling
- placing a hand over your heart and taking slow breaths
- calling a friend
- making love
- playing music
- listening to music
- going out into nature
and whatever else you can think of, can all be effective when you’re using them with kindness, curiosity, and intentionality.
Being Fully Alive Generates Compassion
Experiencing and expressing your full range of emotions is part of what makes you feel vital and open and expansive, even if what you’re feeling is painful. Turning toward your pain in this kind and intentional manner unleashes adaptive actions, and feels way more relieving than skipping over emotions and striving for a surface level of peace.
We’re social and emotional creatures and thus we’re vulnerable to intense emotions and feelings of unsafety when we go through times of instability.
What if we could openly acknowledge this vulnerability as a culture and a species, and so share compassion for each other?
What if it could be viewed as normal to seek social support and help to bear the painful oscillations of emotional states that last for a long time?
Creating an inner environment and a society that fosters kind presence with painful emotions is not easy. These types of emotions can be overwhelming for even the most courageous of us.
But even as nature has forced us to feel vast pain when our lives are disrupted, she has also given us the ability to discover the understanding that extreme emotional states make sense when we endure suffering, and that responding to ourselves and one another with compassionate internal and social support when we suffer this intensely will strengthen the health of all of us, and will lead us to take actions that heal ourselves and our communities.
It seems that we are humbled before the great events of life. Events over which we have no power, no influence. … To be humbled like this is not meant to be a punishment, but rather [a] grooming to be awakened. In this awakening of utter powerlessness over everything outside of ourselves, something miraculous occurs. We become teachable again. Humble. Graced. In touch with powers greater than us. …. It is humanizing.
— Stephanie Ericsson, Companion Through the Darkness
I hope this series has been of help to you during these painful, frightening, uncertain times. Please let me know if anything in particular has helped you…
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