Last week Jane came into my office feeling paralyzed and confused.
“When my anxiety starts up I try to use my skills to validate my emotions. But then my mind starts finding all the real things I have to feel anxious about! So how do I know when to listen to my emotions?”
Jane’s question is important, because finding the needed balance between accepting and changing our emotions can be a very subtle, nuanced endeavor.
Finding the Balance
The skill of regulating emotions is balancing feeling better, with getting better at feeling.
Feeling Better: Most of us get caught in our feel better auto-pilot habits, which reduce the discomfort short term, but take us off track towards our goals long term.
Too much emphasis on this side of the balance often leads to paradoxical backlash. Like trying to hold multiple beach balls under the surface of the water, the chase becomes exhausting!
Getting better at feeling. On the other hand allowing our emotions (beach balls) to be present, without clinging or pushing them away, is sometimes the more effective thing to do. The skill is practicing Willingness, while listening to the messages of our emotions. This side of the balance is essential for two reasons.
1. Our life becomes organized around what we don’t want, rather than what we do want (i.e. our goals and values).
2. We will be deaf to the messages of our emotions, which is where important information about what we care about comes from.
But too much emphasis on this side of the balance can get us caught in the spiral of intense, unhelpful secondary emotions.
Holding Center: Balancing Acceptance with Change
Mindfulness practices help us build psychological flexibility: the skill of moving between acceptance and change. The practice is both leaning into, listening, and allowing our vulnerable emotional experience AND disciplining ourselves to shift attention back to the present moment.
Like balancing a surfboard on a bowling ball, the skill of moving in and moving out requires a fair amount of practice. But just as you would not want to learn how to surf in high tide, it is best to create practice conditions, to build some mastery first.
The Practice: Bringing to Mind the Difficult
To begin building this skill in a manageable way, you can practice in the virtual reality of your imagination. These steps will guide you in HOW to balance holding both acceptance and change and build your psychological flexibility in coping with triggering situations.
Step 1: Bring to mind the difficult: Allow an image of something mild to moderately upsetting to come to mind. Think of the who, what, where, and how. Really let your emotional reaction to the event bubble up.
Step 2: Label and connect to the feelings: Label the exact emotion(s) (Remember, emotions are the one word answer, such as sad, angry, anxious). You may practice using the Dashboard form.
Step 3: Lean In: Observe the feelings (physical and emotional) as they come up in a kind and loving way. Perhaps saying to yourself, “there you are, I see you.” Allow yourself to really feel the pull of the emotion. Stay with it for at least a few minutes, adding more time as your tolerance increases.
Step 4: Redirect and Anchor in the present moment: Once you have really connected to the feelings, it can be really tough to shift gears. (Like getting out of a warm bath. You know you can’t sit there forever.) This takes some practiced discipline: Take a deep belly breath, and move your attention to the physical sensations of breathing, your body, and the environment around you. You may also use the “I am inhaling with awareness, exhaling with acceptance” mantra to re-establish an anchor.
Step 5: Repeat
You may begin this practice with very short periods of entering in and moving out of the difficult thoughts, and then extending the time somewhat. Remember, the skill is to not over control your emotion by anchoring, nor over indulge in getting pulled in. The skill is built by the subtle shifting from one mode to the other.
When to Listen
Jane’s frustration and uncertainty is understandable. There is no perfect dosage for how much of acceptance versus change is needed. But a good barometer is to ask yourself, “Is this feeling familiar?” In other words, could this be some old passenger programing, which is being added to the current facts of the situation?
Ultimately, your task is much like that of a loving parent. That is to attend to your internal experience with loving kindness, while still practicing the discipline you need to not get overwhelmed and move forward.
The dosage balance will always depend on what works for you to move towards your goals and values. Sometimes that will mean more acceptance, sometimes more change.
Holding the balance is in the service of coping as effectively as possible with the inevitable triggers you will encounter in life. Being skillful comes with repeated acts of willingness to accept that you are human, while challenging yourself to respond differently to your programming.
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