How to Sit with Painful Emotions
Feeling painful emotions, not surprisingly, can be painful. This is why so many of us don’t do it. Instead, we ignore our emotions, or dismiss them. We try to numb the pain with a glass of wine or three. We isolate ourselves. We cut or burn ourselves, or engage in other kinds of self-harm.
Basically, we turn to anything that’ll help us get rid of our feelings. “As humans, we do everything we can do to reduce our suffering and to avoid pain — emotional or physical. So it is difficult to accept the pain [of our emotions] and not try to do anything to fight it,” said Sheri Van Dijk, MSW, a psychotherapist in Sharon, Ontario, Canada.
Some of us learn early on from our caregivers — that throwing tantrums or turning to substances or self-harm is the way to deal with painful emotions, she said.
Others may be highly sensitive. Highly sensitive individuals make up 20 to 30 percent of the population. They “experience things more intensely, and therefore have had more difficulties learning to manage emotions because they become so overwhelmed by them.”
But while we think we’re minimizing the pain with our behavior, we’re really amplifying it. For instance, in the short term, self-harm may feel soothing. However, in the long run, it only spikes stress: People may experience guilt or shame because they’re trying to stop the behavior; it can damage their relationships; their cuts and burns may require medical attention, Van Dijk said.
“In other words, when we fight the pain: judge it, try to push it away, avoid it, ignore it, it actually triggers other painful emotions, resulting in more emotional pain.” We also never learn healthy ways to cope.
Sitting with our emotions simply means allowing them, resisting the urge to get rid of the pain and not judging ourselves for having these emotions, she said.
Here’s an example: A month ago, you and your friend made plans to hang out. But she cancels after another friend gets tickets to see her favorite band on the same day. Your feelings are hurt because you made these plans a while ago, you were looking forward to finally catching up, and you feel like you were ditched for a better offer.
According to Van Dijk, you might tell yourself: “It makes sense she would go to the concert because it’s her favorite band”; I’m being ridiculous for feeling hurt”; or “I’d probably do the same thing. Get over it; you’re being a child.”
But this only makes you feel frustrated and angry with yourself — on top of feeling hurt. Instead of judging yourself or fighting your feelings, sitting with your emotions would look like this, she said: “It makes sense that I’m feeling hurt because I was looking forward to spending time with my friend”; or “I feel hurt that she chose the concert over me, and it’s OK that I feel this way.”
While these thoughts don’t eliminate your hurt, they do prevent any extra emotional pain, she said.
Below, Van Dijk, also author of the book Calming the Emotional Storm: Using Dialectical Behavior Therapy Skills to Manage Your Emotions and Balance Your Life, shared three ways we can sit with our emotions.
1. Observe your emotions.
Sit with your emotions by noting what you’re experiencing without judging yourself. For instance, according to Van Dijk, in the above example, this might mean saying: “I’m feeling hurt that my friend chose to go to the concert instead of spending time with me. I’m having worry thoughts about what this means for our friendship. I’m feeling like I want to cry — my throat is tightening up. Now I’m noticing that I’m starting to judge myself because I don’t want to cry. This is uncomfortable, but I’m OK; I can tolerate this.”
2. Validate your emotions.
Validating your emotions means accepting them. Again, you don’t judge your emotions, and thereby trigger extra pain. In this piece Van Dijk shared the steps for validation.
Here’s an example she frequently gives when teaching this skill: After her client, “Joe,” says something in their session, she finds herself getting angry with him. If she invalidates her emotions, she’d think: “Oh my god, I’m feeling angry with Joe. What’s wrong with me? He’s my client. I’m supposed to be helping him, not feeling angry with him! What kind of therapist am I going to be if I’m getting angry with my clients?”
However, this also makes her feel guilty and angry with herself for getting angry at Joe, and she feels anxious about not being a good therapist.
Validating her emotions can simply mean saying, “OK, I’m feeling angry with Joe right now.” Then Van Dijk can focus on problem-solving: “Did Joe just say something offensive or insulting to me that I need to deal with assertively?
Or it’s possible that Joe said something that reminded her of someone else, triggering her “own baggage.” If that’s the case, she can sit with her emotions.
3. Focus on the present.
It’s also helpful to focus our attention on the present, instead of “wallowing” in the experience. We wallow when we fixate on the feeling, judge ourselves or judge the person or situation that triggered our feelings, Van Dijk said. We may dwell on the situation and ruminate about the details.
Van Dijk shared this example of wallowing: “Wow, I got so angry with Joe today; it was awful. And I can’t believe he said that in the first place, the jerk. I hate feeling this way, and I hate that it’s stuck with me and ruined my day. This was the last thing I needed.”
In contrast, she shared this example of acknowledging her feelings while refocusing on the task at hand: “OK, here come the thoughts about what happened with Joe earlier today. That anger is coming back again; I feel it like a knot in my stomach. Here’s the hurt about what he said, and I’m noticing judgments about Joe. But I’m just driving home right now, and that’s what I’m going to bring my attention to. I dealt with the situation, there’s nothing else to be done, and I’m just driving home right now.”
Sitting with our emotions can be difficult. But it’s a skill you can learn and practice. Give yourself the space to try.
Tartakovsky, M. (2018). How to Sit with Painful Emotions. Psych Central. Retrieved on April 10, 2020, from https://psychcentral.com/blog/how-to-sit-with-painful-emotions/