The pursuit of happiness pervades our society’s thinking and behaviour. We strive for happiness in our purchases, our professions, our politics.
Culturally, we often don’t make time or space for other emotions – people are encouraged to “get over” their uncomfortable emotions, “move on” from them and to “focus on the positive”.
We collectively, and individually, find it difficult to sit with that which is uncomfortable. And this makes sense – when we feel uncomfortable emotions, it’s unpleasant – and no one wants to feel that way. We often, as a result, aim to feel more pleasant as fast as possible and don’t give ourselves time and space to sit with uncomfortable emotions.
The catch 22 of it all is that this can lead to us harbouring unpleasant emotions and in turn lead to more suffering. In a recent study it was found that the more an individual feels pressure not to feel sadness or anxious, the more likely they are to show increased depressive symptoms.
So how can we begin to embrace uncomfortable emotions?
1.Checking in with how we feel
The very first step to embracing the wide range of emotions we feel is being aware of what we are feeling in our body, Mindfulness and meditation can help with this. Checking in with what we feel in our body can be an excellent way to initially tune in to our emotions.
2. Accepting uncomfortable emotion
We can’t stop ourselves from feeling. Although we might not like what we are feeling, or want what we are feeling, we can at least begin to accept that we feel the way we do. It is helpful to remember that there are no wrong feelings.
A great deal of research demonstrates that it is possible to change our emotion, however we can’t begin to do this if we don’t accept that it is exists in the first place. So the very first step to embracing our uncomfortable emotions is acceptance – and that can be hard. It might require us to let go of some of our defences, it might require that we feel pain. Often speaking with a mental health professional can be helpful in doing this work. If we are struggling to know what we need to accept, we can start to find answers by asking ourselves a few simple questions like, “what am I feeling that I wish would be different?” or “What do I think should be different about the way I feel?”
3. Preparing ourselves to embrace uncomfortable emotions
Emotions can be unpleasant. Finding ways to soothe ourselves when we do feel uncomfortable emotion is an important step to helping us accept them. You might find breathing exercises help. Spend some time understanding how you like to be soothed, and engage with some of these techniques as you accept the presence of that which is uncomfortable.
4. Sitting and listening to the uncomfortable side of our emotion, without acting
Research into emotion demonstrates that all emotion has a purpose and a function. There are no wrong feelings because all of them are telling us something about the situation we are in and what we want from that situation. Each emotion has a message for us and if we can sit with the discomfort, if we let our emotion wash over us (without having to act), then we can finally begin to understand our emotion, learn from our emotion, and embrace the uncomfortable side of our emotion.
5. Knowing the difference between our emotions and our actions
It is important to always remember that there is a difference between how we feel and what we do. This might sound simple, but it requires also remembering that:
- Embracing our unpleasant emotions does not mean that they need to dictate our behaviour, and…
- Just because emotions can urge us to act in ways that can be destructive, does not mean that there is anything wrong with the emotion or that we cannot learn from the emotion
When we embrace an emotion and let ourselves feel it, we can see that the emotion is often telling us something. We are then faced with the decision of how we want to act. This decision is not the same as the emotion, it is a separate choice.
To let go of our endless pursuit of happiness, we need to move beyond simply knowing that all emotion is important. We need to begin to embrace all emotion by accepting that it exists, sitting with that which we find uncomfortable, and learning from it.
We’ve put together a short reading list on books covering our emotions:
Lisa Feldman, How Emotions Are Made
Melanie Tannenbaum, Fear and Love on a Shaky Bridge
Brené Brown, Rising Strong
Paul Ekman and The Dalai Lama, The Atlas of Emotion
If you would like help learning how to sit with uncomfortable emotions, our upcoming workshop on the 29th of February, Feeling It, might help. You can read more about it here.