Many of us were taught as kids that it was not okay to feel strong emotions – high excitement, anger, sadness, fear were all frowned upon. Settle down, be quiet, pull yourself together, we were told. But the problem with that is we learnt to bottle up our emotions or try to get rid of them – often resulting in pent up frustration, anxiety, depression or feeling totally disconnected from others.
We were told that some emotions are acceptable, though. It’s appropriate to feel sadness at a loss (but not for too long!); it’s good to feel happy when you succeed. And you’re meant to feel happy at certain times too – like when you’ve just had a baby or got a promotion – when sometimes you really don’t. (See this great new Facebook article by the writer, Elizabeth Gilbert, about how we often feel The Wrong Emotion.)
What can mindfulness offer as a way to free us up and be at peace with our strong emotions? Well, Awareness of what you’re feeling is Key #1 and Acceptance of these emotions is Key #2.
How do we learn awareness and acceptance of our emotions? It’s not easy if we were taught not to feel them! And men are often at a disadvantage here because our culture tends to reinforce to boys and men that it’s not okay to be emotional, so men don’t end up with the skills to feel or understand their emotions (big generalisation there – some men are quite good at this and some women are not!).
The following practices will help you build your skills in emotional awareness:
- Meditation on Mindfulness of Emotions – feeling the physical feelings in the body of a strong emotion.
- The RAIN practice – in the moment: Recognising your emotion, Accepting it, Investigating it, and Not-Identifying with it – read more about this with Tara Brach here
- Loving Kindness meditation – feeling loving kindness of self and others (here’s my Loving Kindness guided meditation you can try).
Confronting our emotions is quite a challenge if we have deeply repressed our hurt, fear or grief from a very young age. Often the emotions we know we’re feeling are covering up much deeper ones that we didn’t feel safe to express. The most common of these ‘surface emotions’ is anger – we are often aware of this one, but it tends to be covering up vulnerable feelings like hurt, fear or grief. The next time you feel strong anger, look beneath it to see what the deeper feeling is. Are you angry with your partner for cheating on you? – it’s because you feel deeply hurt and betrayed. Are you angry with your boss for not including you in a project? – it’s because you’re afraid she is leaving you aside and not promoting you.
A word of caution – it takes a lot of practice to touch into these deep, painful feelings and it can unearth some unexpected, powerful feelings – even traumatic ones. So ease into it. When meditating on emotions, practice inching towards the feeling and then move away, then back and forward again and again. Try not to overwhelm yourself.
Emotional awareness is not an easy practice – many of us find feeling vulnerable too painful. But if you try to come to terms with your deepest emotions, this will reap you benefits in spades – you’ll be able to start feeling again, to be open and emotional with your loved ones. You’ll be at peace with the child-you, no longer feeling deep down that there is something wrong with you. That’s huge. When you realise these benefits, accepting what you feel will become you new normal.