We are bombarded with expectations of being happy and generous, and sometimes we may feel inadequate and alone by feeling just the opposite. Such is the case with a client of mine. We’ll call her Caroline.
Caroline is going through moments of intense worry as the end of the year is approaching. The thought of going back to her parents’ home and engaging in the inevitable conversations that recur year after year, just brings up so much stress to Caroline. She agonizes about the multitude of questions they’ll ask her concerning her recent divorce, or about her irritable sibling who voted for the “wrong” person during the last election. And to top off the evening she will be cornered by her opinionated Aunt Sarah who criticizes her parenting skills.
Caroline’s afflicting emotions, especially anxiety, fear, and anger seem to spin off in the presence of certain people. She feels tormented.
She even considered cancelling her trip to New England but spending her holidays by herself would leave her feeling lonely and disconnected. Going through the same nightmare year after year is wearing her out, so she finally decided to face the situation. She made the conscious decision to do things differently this time.
As much as we would like people to be a certain way, we know that we have no control of how a person behaves or thinks, or how circumstances turn out. However, we have tremendous power in our ability to train and steer our emotions in such a way that we can experience well-being.
We sat down and designed these three strategies.
1.Beware of Your Thinking Patterns
Notice that fear, worry and anxiety often start with one single thought. A disempowering thought that takes momentum and proliferates into many other thoughts. We leave the present moment and become completely lost in speculations which are either in the past or in the future. Our negativity escalates. These thoughts start creating emotions.
Negativity is a very attractive emotion. It is a magnetic and righteous feeling. It is deceptive. Negativity makes us feel virtuous, moral, good, even honorable while seeing fault with the other. Blaming, criticizing the other, for example, becomes pervasively seductive. Initially we seem to enjoy the feeling because it brings a momentary sense of superiority attached to it.
Highlighting the other’s faults makes us feel we are better, worthier than the other. That feeling does not last long, however, as it will very soon become disempowering and create more sorrow. The negativity we experience leaves the residue of feeling separate, with a certain dissatisfaction leading to much suffering in the long run.
Try the Following Practice
- Pause for a moment.
- Observe your thoughts. Notice how your thinking patterns are linked to the chain of emotions you are feeling.
- Connect to your breathing.
- Let go of your thoughts with no judgment of “good thought” or “bad thought.” Do not fight your thoughts. They are not the enemy.
- Come back to the present moment, to your breath
Bringing consciousness to the part you are playing in the creation of your emotions can be liberating. It can also be therapeutic because once awareness is present, you have a choice: either to stop doing what you always do, or to wake up and do something different. This is a moment of clarity. This is when you start to wake up.
2. Become Curious About your Embodied Experience
As we dwell on our thoughts and emotions, we become prisoners not only of them but of the mood they have created. It’s as if we are under a spell. It is intense. We feel hopelessly trapped with a monstrous companion.
Michael Stone, a renowned spiritual teacher who passed away a short time ago, explains, Emotional reactivity starts as a slight tightening. There’s the familiar tug, and before we know it, we’re pulled along. In just a few seconds we go from being slightly annoyed to completely out of control. We go from eating a single macaroon to I can’t believe I just swallowed the whole chocolate cake.
There is extensive research and compelling evidence demonstrating links between emotional regulation and interoceptive awareness which is the awareness of inner body sensations.
Try the Following Practice
- Drop your awareness into your body.
- Become curious about how your emotions are expressed in your body. You will start noticing the strong link between your emotional state and your physiology.
- You will notice the tension, the urge to react. You will notice that you have been “hooked,” as Pema Chodron says.
- You will notice the discomfort of those emotions in your body. It is almost counter intuitive. Instead of running away from your uncomfortable emotions, you lean towards them. You lean towards the discomfort. You get curious about your conflicting emotions.
- You feel how your emotion feels in your body. You start softening around them.
- Allow the emotions to be there, and when you are ready, let go.
Remember that you do not need to fix the problem right away. You are just getting acquainted with your emotions. You are beginning to notice where you are emotionally. You are beginning to notice that behind your reaction, there is the fear and hurt of being rejected and then you start pulling back.
While you are feeling those emotions in your body, you are not repressing them. You are feeling them and yet you’re refraining from acting them out.
3. Make Friends with Yourself
Be kind and gentle with yourself. Growing and evolving is messy. We need the support that can only come from a deep understanding of the nature of our emotions, and their connection to our mind, body and spirit.
Try the Following Practice
- Make sure your cup is full. Make time for yourself and what you need first, so you feel the strength, motivation and desire to be there for others.
- Pause often. Breathe consciously. Notice your surroundings. Bring mindfulness into your life to install the habits of presence and reflection.
- Remember that the way you love and treat yourself is how you teach others to love and treat you. Contemplate on what makes your soul happy, and then go and do that.
Whenever you think others are responsible for the way you feel, you are positioning yourself as a powerless victim. What you are really saying is YOU are responsible for the way I feel. As a result, that leaves you with no control over your own emotions because you have no control over how other people behave.
If you want to take care of yourself and be at the steering wheel of your life, it is to your benefit to take responsibility for the way you are feeling. Practicing the three steps described above will support you in doing that.
Healing is a gradual spiral process. You meet your same triggers, reacting in the same way once and again until one day you realize you can do something different. You notice that if you pause, you have the power to respond instead of reacting. Then you will wake up to a life of freedom and possibilities. It takes a lot of courage and honesty with yourself to be able to do that.
I invite you to use your triggers to your advantage. What are they telling you about your preexisting, unresolved issues? Is something missing in your life? Bring your focus within and discover what you can do to become your best and highest self not only for this holiday season but for life.