“You can’t stop the waves, but you can learn to surf.“
Take a moment and recall the last time you felt a strong emotion. What do you remember? What did your body feel like? What thoughts came to mind? What did you feel like doing? What did you do? Pause and close your eyes for a few moments to reflect on these questions.
It is common to try and get rid of our feelings, particularly when we experience strong emotions of sadness, anger or fear. However, trying to get rid of emotions can actually make them more distressing and difficult to manage. Befriending our emotions through mindfulness as well as skills aimed at fostering emotional intelligence (i.e., recognizing, labeling and expressing emotions) are both helpful practices for engaging more effectively in our emotional lives.
Emotions are important. Foremost, emotions communicate important information to us and to others. For example, anger may tell us we have been mistreated or sadness may tell us we have lost something important or need support. Emotions also assist us in organizing our experiences and actions. Again, fear may organize us to confront a wrongdoer or sadness may allow us to withdraw from busy activities so that we can have space to grieve. Experiencing painful emotions can also help us empathize with others and sharing vulnerabilities fosters closer relationships. Emotions also provide color to our lives as we experience moments of joy or feel proud of our accomplishments. In either case, both “positive” and “negative” emotions are important. Understanding and engaging with our emotional life is ultimately a significant strength.
Mindfulness is a helpful way for us to practice befriending our emotions. Just as we practice being mindful of our breath or the sights and sounds in our environment, we can also practice being mindful of our emotions.
We can practice being more mindful of our emotions as we experience them or by taking note of our emotions and practicing being present and connecting with our emotional experiences at a later time. We can also practice monitoring when we become self-critical. In both cases, the increased awareness and self-compassion that accompanies mindfulness practice will be useful for better understanding what our emotions are telling us and responding to our emotions in ways that are more intentional.
Practicing mindfulness of emotions is often challenging as judgement or criticism is likely to arise or we might struggle to remain present with intense or upsetting emotions. It is helpful to remember that the most important part of this practice is simply turning toward and becoming more aware of your emotions.
As we become more aware or mindful of our emotions, we can use the five RULER skills developed by Dr. Marc Brackett, Ph.D., to regularly check-in with our emotions throughout the day, label our emotions, and express how we are feeling:
Recognize: How am I feeling? Cues from our bodies (posture, energy level, breathing, and heart rate) can help us identify feelings.
Understand: What happened that led me to feel this way? As feelings change throughout the day, think about the possible causes of these feelings. Identifying the things (people, thoughts, and events) that lead to uncomfortable feelings can help us both manage and anticipate them in order to prepare an effective response.
Label: What word best describes how I am feeling? Although there are more than 2,000 emotion words in the English language, most of us use a very limited number of words to describe how we are feeling. The primary or basic emotions include sadness, happiness, fear, anger, surprise, disgust. However, there many words we can use to label our emotions. A brief internet search will provide more options and you might consider printing a list to practice labeling.
Express: How can I express appropriately what I am feeling for this time and place? There are many ways to express each of our feelings. For example, many descriptions for sad, such as lonely, heartbroken, disappointed, hopeless, unhappy, troubled, or miserable.
Regulate: What can I do to maintain my feeling (if I want to continue feeling this way) or shift my feeling (if I do not want to continue feeling this way)? Having short-term strategies (taking deep breaths or stepping back to allow distance) to manage emotions in the moment as well as long-term strategies (reframing negative experiences or seeking social support) to manage emotions over time is an important part of emotion regulation.
Emotions are not a sign of weakness. They are not here to hurt us, nor are they the cause of our hurt. It is our reactions to our emotions through self-criticism and blame, or our harmful behaviors toward ourselves or others, that causes pain and suffering. If we are able to befriend our emotions and welcome them with compassion into our lives, we might find ourselves situated at a place of greater insight and freedom as we greet each new friend with a receptive heart.
Dr. Thomas Lindquist, Psy.D.
Visit us at lindquistpsych.com
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