How to Sit with and Process Emotions
Emotions are biological signals that alert us and elicit responses to our environment. Whether our environment consists of danger or pleasure, our emotions are what motivate us to engage with it in ways that help us survive. When we ignore our emotions, they don’t just go away. Rather, they get bigger and stronger until we are forced to face them in ways that are, at best, inconvenient, and at worst, painful and damaging. Most of us never learned how to process our emotions – so, what does that mean and how does one do it?
Acknowledge and Allow
This first step in processing your emotions is to acknowledge that you are feeling something and allow it to be. This is a hard first step for a lot of people. Many of us have learned that emotions are a sign of weakness, that they make others uncomfortable, that they incite humiliation and rejection, or that they should be ignored. Here, you are going to try to something different. Allow this feeling to exist simply by not fighting it. Approach it with curiosity rather than fear, disgust, shame, or apathy.
This step is important. Naming the emotion allows us to make meaning of our experience and helps us to figure out how to address the problem that the upsetting emotion is alerting us to. Remember, emotions are signals that help us understand our world and our role in it. If we can name the emotions, then we have a road map for how to cope. Sometimes it is hard to pinpoint exactly what feeling you are experiencing. Use the emotion wheel to uncover the specific upsetting emotion.
Accept and Visualise
Here comes the hard part! Now that you’ve named it you might find yourself wanting to follow the old pattern of trying to ignore, control or banish the emotion. Instead, close your eyes and turn your attention inward to your body. Accept the emotion for what it is. An important piece of this step is to be curious, not judgemental. This is exceptionally difficult. So, try using the phrase “that’s interesting” in place of any judgemental thoughts that comes to mind in response to the emotion. Visualize the emotion. Where are you feeling it in your body? What does this emotion look like – does is have a shape, colour, size, texture or even a sound? Visualising the emotion helps us to gain distance and separation from it.
Seek to Understand
With some distance and separation between you and the emotion, you can start to become curious and eager to understand the emotion as a separate entity. Ask yourself, “What is this emotion telling me? What does it need from me? What is this emotion trying to teach me?” For even deeper understanding you might consider questions like “What have I learned about what it means to experience this emotion? What have I learned about how to cope with or express emotions like this one? And where/when did I learn this?”
Release and Integrate
Now, it is time to release the so you can address the problem it bring it to lighht. Start to focus on your breathing, make your exhales longer than your inhales. As you inhale, thank the emotion for making you aware of the problem. As you exhale, release the emotion, exhale it out, it has served its purpose. Last, pick a coping strategy for integrate this new understanding – focusing on your breath for a length of time to release the emotion might be enough. Or you might try journaling about what you learned from the emotion or about your plan for addressing the problem that the emotion brought to your awareness. You might try exercising, meditation, connecting with a supportive other, harnessing the energy of the emotion to take immediate action, affirmations, or nourishing your body with food, water or sleep. Listen to your body – it knows what you need, all you have to do is listen.