How to manage uncomfortable emotions.

Nicola Harker, Doctor and Empowerment specialist, explores the idea of staying with, rather than running away from uncomfortable emotions.

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When you're feeling bad, do you want to rush back to feeling good?

It's normal!  Every creature, (even an amoeba) moves away from an unpleasant stimulus!

When you have an uncomfortable emotion, do you find yourself running through your mental list looking for ways that you can feel better?  A cup of tea?  Going for a run?  Making a plan?

Having strategies to change your vibe when you're in a grump is an excellent coping strategy.  It's something I do myself all the time - notice that I need to take action, and make a plan.

But what happens when this strategy turns into avoidance?  What about that part of you that you suspect is flawed?  What about those uncomfortable feelings that come up time and again, even though you've tried every meditation technique in the book?  Or what happens when you get hit by a shame storm because someone criticised you or called you out on something?  

Some years ago I realised that I was holding onto the belief that everything should be good all of the time.  It was a misconception, that if I was struggling, I was failing in some way.  Luckily I noticed, and I changed my mind.

I've had several conversations recently that reminded me how important this change in thinking was for me.  A question that I often get asked is "but how do I stay with uncomfortable emotions?" and this is a really great question.

Staying with uncomfortable emotions brings up fear of being overwhelmed, swept away, being unable to function.  We fear turning towards an emotion, because we've been told in the past not to cry or make a fuss, and we fear being weak or being unable to cope.  When I work with clients, they often say "No, I've looked at this emotion before and I can't do it, it's just too big!"  I get that, I've felt like that too in the past!

But what I've discovered is that none of those things happen, and learning to stay with difficult emotions has made me stronger, more authentic, and more determined.

How do you do it?

1.  Notice the judgment you are placing on yourself for feeling emotions.  Release the judgment and remind yourself "this is normal.  This is what people feel in this situation".  Interestingly when I do this, I move through the emotion more quickly.

2.  Remember that you can regulate your emotions, like turning a tap on or off.  If your emotions feel too intense you can choose to ease up, have a bath, play some music, go for a walk.  You are not at the mercy of your emotions - it's the fear of being overwhelmed that makes you feel that you have no way to manage.  This one is HUGE - I used to feel that once I let the emotions in, I was out of control.  But it's not about control.  When you accept that emotions are normal and you stop judging your emotions for being present, they become naturally milder.  Imagine the emotion flowing like a river, rather than trying to build a dam.

3.  Trust your body.  Sometimes when we feel a powerful emotion, we then start to feel neck pain, headache, or tightness in our throat or chest.  If you fight that feeling, it tends to become magnified.  See if you can notice the sensation and name it.  "Oh this is anger and I'm feeling it in my chest".  As soon as you name it, it will feel less powerful.  Your body is incredible and is giving you useful feedback.  Perhaps every time you feel neck pain this is anger trying to be expressed.  Imagine that you can lean into your pain, as if you were leaning against a huge firm cushion, or a bale of hay.  You don't need to fix it, you can acknowledge that your amazing body is showing you signs.

4.  Be realistic about time.  Despite telling other people that "things take time" research has shown that we don't offer ourselves the same luxury.  If something is difficult we expect to be ok again within minutes.  What about acknowledging that you are struggling now, and in a few days things might feel better?  Lowering your expectations, supporting yourself when things feel tough, and giving yourself some time to process will allow you to move forward rather than getting stuck in the mindset of "why do I always struggle, I will never be fixed"!

5.  Appreciate struggle.  I know it doesn't sound like fun does it!  But struggle is telling you that you need to work on your relationships, or that you haven't accepted a part of yourself, or that you haven't met the standards you aspire to.  Struggle isn't bad, shame isn't bad, fear isn't bad.  They are all useful signals that you'd like something to change or there is something that you're ready to learn.  When I'm having my biggest struggles I know that my best leaps forward are just around the corner!

Nicola Harker

Coach and Mentor (ex-doctor) and teacher of Self-Compassion, Nicola Harker Coaching

Using neuroscience, self-compassion techniques and coaching as well as high-performance techniques I help my clients free their potential and get back to their true selves so that they can thrive in life.