Last week we talked about learning to identify our emotions. If you missed Part 1, be sure to check it out. We started out with the absolute basics in order to build a solid foundation. We'll be building on prior skills in this series.
In this article I'll talk about acceptance of emotions. Sounds easy enough, right? Think again. It can be incredibly challenging, but can be done.
Here, I'll share a real life example to get you started.
So one night I was sitting there blow drying my hair, minding my own business, and not thinking about anything really, when out of the blue a wave of sadness overtook me and my eyes welled up with tears.
Now, let's put the fact that I felt totally irrational aside, and focus on the idea that at that moment I had two options: 1) Choke back the tears and try to distract myself or 2) allow the tears to free fall (while multi-tasking and drying my hair of course).
Now, because I had been practicing acceptance of my emotions, I opted for choice two. Did I feel totally wacky? Absolutely. Did I pray that no one would walk in and see me drying and crying? Definitely. But actually allowing myself to experience the emotion freed me from it.
Do I do this perfectly all the time? Nope. I'm human too. I'll talk more about how option two actually helps us be more in control of our feelings later in this article.
Strong emotions are like whiney, 2-year-olds, throwing a temper tantrum. They compete for your attention and become louder and louder until finally you turn around and yell, "What?!!" (Please know I'm not encouraging you to give in to temper tantrums, rather I'm trying to make a point.) The idea is that until you pay attention to your emotions, they'll beg and they'll scream for it. It doesn’t matter if you try to ignore them.
Emotions that need to be dealt with will find ways of making you pay attention in one way or another: Whether it’s through insomnia or by making you chronically ill or some other way. So let’s take some of their power away and choose when you acknowledge the emotion, without judgement of course.
Follow these three tips and you'll be on your way to having more emotional control.
1) Pay attention to the emotion.
Last week we learned how to identify when we were feeling the emotion. Now that we understand what we're feeling, we are going to focus direct attention on the emotion. By doing this we are communicating that we are accepting that at this time we need to feel this way. This is practicing what you learned in Part 1. Pay attention to your body and the emotion it is holding.
2) Count to 90.
This is the most important part. Did you know that the life cycle of an emotion is only 90 seconds? When I say life cycle, that means that it takes less than 90 seconds for an emotion to get triggered, for the body to release chemicals through the blood stream, and then return to baseline.
Jill Bolte Taylor, who is a brain researcher highlights this idea in her book called “My Stroke of Insight."
Everyone has emotions. Let's face it we're human. The emotions are not the problem.
I repeat, the emotions are not the problem. The judgements and the stories we create about the emotions are the problem. This is where most people get stuck.
For example, let's imagine that a person makes a mistake and initially feels embarrassed. Now, if that person has no thoughts or judgments about that initial feeling, the emotion will complete its normal life cycle and the person will return to baseline functioning. The person feels embarrassed and that's the end of the story. The person moves on.
Now if the person feels embarrassed and then goes on to have thoughts like, I can't believe I just did that. What an idiot. I HATE feeling embarrassed. It's the worst! Ugh, I don't want to feel this way, I've got to get rid of this feeling... the person is interrupting the life cycle and is instead triggering another emotion. Thinking, I'm an idiot, for example, will trigger another emotional response like shame. Thus initiating the cycle all over again. If each emotion is followed by a judgement, story or a desire to not feel that way, we are in for a looooooonnnngggg emotional roller coaster ride.
Certain feelings like grief, can be complicated and may resolve briefly, and then come back for another 90 seconds. Have patience with yourself and allow yourself to feel.
*Disclaimer: I do realize that it's not always socially appropriate to allow our emotions to complete their life cycle. Especially if you're in a profession (first responders, lawyers, etc.) where you need to be composed.
The thing that is important though, is to make sure that you're allowing yourself to feel the emotion at some point. Maybe it needs to be in private. The point is to not judge the feeling when it arises, even if you need to acknolwedge it at another time.
3) Remember that emotions are neither good nor bad, they just are.
Ah yes grasshopper, I'm getting very philosophical with that statement, I know. All joking aside though, in reality emotions can't hurt us. We do not need to be afraid of them.
Do they feel life threatening sometimes? Absolutely, especially if you suffer from panic attacks. The truth is that the fear of having a certain emotional response can cause the feeling to build in intesity and have more power over you.
Your emotions actually cannot hurt you if they are short lived. Yes, I know there's some research out there that hanging onto certain emotions can harm our health, but notice that I'm not talking about long-term emotions.
If we're allowing emotions to complete their life cycle by practicing non-judgement we're only talking about 90 seconds, remember?
Please understand that I'm not oblivious to the fact that certain emotions are extremely uncomfortable, but in order to have gratitude for the emotions that are comfortable, we must experience the ones we don't love so much. That is what the human experience is all about.
If you're a parent help your kids by modeling acceptance of emotions. That means letting your kids know that it's ok to have a full range of feelings. Show by doing it yourself. You can say things like, "You know, Mom/Dad is feeling sad right now and that's ok. It's not your fault and I'll be ok." It is absolutely appropriate to let your kids see your emotions in moderation as long as they understand that it's not their fault that you are having big feelings. Always reassure them that it's not their job to take care of you.
Encourage your kids to sit with their emotions too. Bust out the stop watch feature on your phone or a good old fashion watch when your kiddo is feeling calm and teach him or her that all big feelings pass after 90 seconds. You're teaching this when they're calm because their brains can't learn when they're upset. When they eventually have a meltdown, remind them that feelings come and go. Label the emotion for your child and ask if he or she would like to sit with you and time it.
This week practice noticing any judgements you have about the emotion you are paying attention to. Try not to judge yourself for judging in the first place. Judging our judging only makes the cycle worse. Wow, that's a mouthful. Remember, we are practicing acceptance, and this can take a while to get used to. Allow yourself to experience the emotion, acknowledge that it's there, and move on with your day. You'll most likely find yourself doing this hundreds of times a day. Eventually, with enough practice it'll feel like second nature.
I'd love to hear your experiences of how this went in the comments below. Were you able to accept at least one emotion this week? What differences did you notice?