You’re at home in the evening, and all of a sudden a wave of sadness creeps in. You find out you didn’t get the promotion you worked so hard towards, and you feel shame, wondering how you’ll tell your family. You arrive at an event, notice you’re significantly under-dressed for the occasion, and instantly feel embarrassed, wishing you could just disappear. We experience a multitude of emotions each and every day, and yet we dread and try and avoid this experience as best as we can. But why?
Were you ever told as a child, “Big boys/girls don’t cry”, “Snap out of it”, or “Don’t worry about it”? From a very young age, many of us were taught to do our best to avoid emotions, to not think about them, or to use distraction techniques. We learned that some emotions were “good”, and some were “bad”, and that we will only be happy in life if we avoid the “bad” or “negative” emotions. As such, we start to become masters at avoiding emotions, whether it be holding them in, harshly judging ourselves for experiencing them, or trying to dampen our emotions with substances or other avoidance techniques. Although this can sometimes be effective in the short term, there are many long-term implications for treating our emotions as enemies, such as anxiety, depression, and substance abuse.
In Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), our emotions are viewed as a part of our experience that are neither good nor bad. Instead, ACT takes a radical stance that we must learn to universally accept all emotions, no matter how they make us feel. Acceptance does not necessarily mean that we want the emotions or like them, but rather that we are choosing to allow space for them to be a part of our experience. When we allow space for our emotions, we are fostering self-compassion by allowing ourselves to be here, as we are, right now. Dr. Joan Rosenberg, a psychologist based in Los Angeles, argues that emotions actually help us to feel more comfortable in our own skin. In her TEDx Talk, she discusses how we must embrace our emotions, as they are the path back to being more fully you. In other words, to deny our emotions is to deny a part of ourselves and perhaps the very thing that makes us human.
So how can we end this battle with our emotions? Next time you experience a strong emotion, pause. Notice where you feel the emotion, and any thoughts that show up with it. Notice if any rules or judgements about your emotions appear. Notice if you experience the urge to run away and escape this uncomfortable feeling. Then, instead of doing the escaping – just let it be. Open up and allow space for the emotion, granting it permission to be there. Physically, emotions hurt, but they cannot harm us. We are always bigger than any emotion we may experience. We hurt where we care, and experiencing an emotion is a sign that there is something we care deeply about. What is it? How can we honour this part of ourselves? Can we thank ourselves for caring so deeply and passionately about something? It is through this last step of gratitude that we can slow down, connect, and centre ourselves in what’s really important.
You can view Dr. Joan Rosenberg’s TEDx talk by visiting https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EKy19WzkPxE