Emotional pain is a part of being human, and no one gets a free pass. We all suffer with feelings of sadness, guilt, anger and shame. Often, though, we unknowingly do things that make our emotional pain worse and add to it.
There are a few ways we make our suffering worse:
1. We try to push our feelings away.
While this might work temporarily, it always ends up causing more problems than the actual sadness, anger or disappointment itself. This style of coping causes problems in relationships, and the methods we pick for pushing our feelings away become problems in and of themselves.
2. Often we don't believe we are entitled to feel the way we do.
Somewhere along the line we were told our feelings were not valid, important or were wrong. This causes an internal struggle that puts us at odds with ourselves and our most basic responses.
3. We get caught up in the stories we tell ourselves.
Maybe they're the same stories we've been telling ourselves for years whenever certain feelings crop up. We star in these well-crafted narratives as familiar characters (think: victim, villain, loser, and so on), and they serve to add fuel to the emotional fire and bring an extra serving of negative feelings, compounding the original pain.
4. We become our feelings.
Some people have a very hard time putting names to their feelings. They recognize a sense of emotional arousal but aren't able to analyze the feeling enough to name it and become overwhelmed by it. This also occurs when we over-identify with the feeling. We don't just feel angry, we become angry. There's a subtle but important difference.
When we bring awareness to our feelings, we can find a bit of space, a buffer zone between us and our pain. In this space we can observe our pain without being overwhelmed by it, and can better decide how to act on our feelings. It can help us avoid lashing out, which almost always makes us feel worse and causes greater suffering.
So here's a way we can work with our suffering in a skillful, compassionate way, setting the intention that we not add more pain to the original wound. It can be done any where, any time. You can watch this video to guide you through the technique:
1. Begin by sitting comfortably with a straight spine.
Focus on your breath for a minute or two.
2. Notice what feelings are present.
Name them. The very act of giving a name to your feelings flips a neurological switch in the brain that enables you to go from being caught up in a wave of emotion to a more calm, compassionate, rational state.
3. Notice the physical sensation of the emotion in the body.
What is the sensation and where does it take up residence inside you?
4. Ask stories arise about the experience.
Who is the "star" of the movie you're playing in your head? Who is the victim? Who is the villain? Don't judge, just be curious about it.
5. Drop these stories and notice the feeling again.
Is is stronger, more powerful, more painful?
6. Recognize that what you are experiencing is part of the collective human experience.
The feeling isn't good or bad. It's simply a part of what it means to be alive in this moment.
7. Find compassion for your suffering.
Put your hand on your heart, recognize your pain and offer yourself a word or two of compassion such as, "I'm sorry," or, "This hurts." If this is hard to do, imagine viewing yourself through a friend or supportive significant other's eyes. See them sitting in front of you and sense the compassion and kindness they would offer you. See the love they have for you and take it in as your own.
8. Focus on your breath again for a couple of minutes.
Let your attention follow your inhales and exhales. Notice your moment to moment experience. Observe any thoughts that arise but then go back to your breath. Is there space from the painful feelings and the stories as you follow your breath with your attention?
Practice working with tough feelings in this self-compassionate way regularly, and you'll find yourself more balanced, resilient and capable.