Unless you had an exceptional upbringing, processing emotions will not come naturally to you!
In the West, we grow up valuing thinking, not feeling. And combine that with a cultural/social environment that doesn’t healthily deal with emotions, and the stage is set for our suffering.
We pay a high price for the intolerance of our most tender parts. As emotions go unseen, they often manifest as a profound restlessness, a non-specific anxiety. We get further and further lost from ourselves, which can make us feel sad about everything.
And because everyone is doing the same thing, the environment we live in is highly judgmental and under compassionate. Privately, this makes us all feel even more isolated and desperate.
But people are slowly waking up to the truth that our habitual ways of dealing with emotions is problematic. Faced with a lifetime of bad habits, how do we even begin to start to become healthier with our emotions?
This post gives you a simple technique you can use.
4 stages of processing emotions
Processing our emotions involves the key skills of noticing, naming and accepting. Simple sounding names, but they are quite hard to do.
It sounds obvious, but you can’t process emotions without first noticing you are having them. Mindfulness is the vehicle through which we can begin to wake up to our emotional selves. It is the practice of open receptivity to what is arising.
When we practice mindfulness, we notice emotion, thought and physical sensation, as distinct from being emotion, thought, sensation. It is the difference between ‘I feel anger right now’ and ‘I am angry’.
That’s why even if you tend to be highly aware of your emotions, it’s a good idea to practice mindfulness. You will learn not to identify with your emotions to the exclusion of other information.
If you aren’t already in the habit of practising mindfulness, do this right away. You can link it up with activities to begin with, that act as your cues to be mindful. For example, you can commit to spending your car or train journeys noticing thoughts, emotions and physical sensations. Eventually, you will find that you are more mindful than not throughout the day.
I wrote about my own mindfulness practice here.
Initially, when processing emotions, it is helpful to name them. To do that, you might need to expand on your emotional vocabulary.
I have found that a reading habit has helped me enormously with understanding the different types of fear/worry (for example, I can better distinguish between doubt, uncertainty, anxiety and insecurity when I feel them).
I wrote about how you can develop naming skills here.
3. Accepting (or allowing)
Accepting emotions is what is usually missing from the picture. In the context of processing your emotions, acceptance means ending the struggle against the emotion. Usually, it means letting it be felt in your body.
What we often do instead of acceptance is abandon the experience in favour of something distracting. This is what fuels many of our mental addictions and compulsions.
Acceptance is assisted by being able to take refuge within ourselves. It is a choice we make moment to moment – we will meet this emotion and permit it, or will we make it go away somehow?
Here are some specific acceptance practices you can do for different emotions.
4. Acting on it/them (maybe)
A final element to processing our emotions might include taking some action. For example, being aware of how you regularly feel doubt and anxiety during meetings at work may mean that you adopt a practice as a way to make that situation more peaceful for yourself.
These are the stages of emotional processing. Over time, the benefits are profound. Our emotions move through us freely and we generally enjoy more wellbeing.
How to know your current way of processing emotions
How you currently process your emotions depends on your nature and nurture. So does the type of emotions you are most uncomfortable about facing.
For example, I have no problem in feeling my anger. But feeling my pain is another story. We all have unconscious attitudes or stances toward certain emotions.
Many of us engage in either one or a combination of these:
Disassociation – This limits our ability to feel pleasure along with pain. It puts a strain on all personal relationships. It might even help to create chronic health issues.
Rumination – The emotions may be being felt/experienced, but we are getting stuck in thinking. This is the essence of what it means to struggle against emotions.
Attachment/addiction to your emotions – We are subconsciously addicted to feeling stuck and we seek out experiences that keep us there. As with the other tendencies, at its root it is a lack of awareness issue.
Projection of emotions – Certain emotions go unacknowledged within us, and instead we remark on them in others (projection). Or we might become consumed by an inauthentic emotion, that conceals the more authentic one that we need to deal with. For example, we might feel insecure instead of feeling uncertain, which is actually a lot more terrifying.
Volcanic emotions – Acting on emotions despite destructive consequences.
9 steps to processing emotions
The below process, adapted from The Wisdom of the Enneagram, is a more structured form of the practices I talked about above. If you are the kind of person that likes to use a lot of structure, then this may be more suitable.
1. ‘See it’
With the support of presence (awareness/mindfulness) we are able to see that we have identified with a feeling/emotion.
For some of us, it is easy to confuse the experience of an emotion with a physical state, for example lethargy or tiredness, or a headache. We can be that unskilled at recognizing our emotions when they come up. If that sounds familiar, then consider that your physical symptom is an emotion – what emotion could it be?
2. ‘Say it’
We simply and honestly name whatever state we have just recognized without analyzing or judging it.
3. ‘Sense it’
Every intense emotional or mental state causes some kind of physical reaction in the body; a kind of tension or ailment. Find it. Be with it.
We stay with the sensation of the tension or energy that we have located. If we do not stay with the tension, there can be no release.
If we are able to stay with it, underlying feelings of emotional pain or anxiety may begin to arise. Deeper layers are felt as we realize what is going on underneath the surface level infringement. We need to be compassionate with ourselves to help us to stay present to the feelings. It takes time before we can appreciate the simplicity of experiencing ourselves this way.
If we have been successful in processes 1-4, we will begin to feel something opening up, and tensions dropping away. We relax. We feel lighter and more awake.
Or we may experience yet further tensions and anxieties, or else notice the compulsions of former patterns of behaviour.
We allow the process of relaxation to hit/touch our breathing. The more caught up in an emotion we are, the more constricted and shallow our breathing is.
Breathing helps to ground us.
We start to open up perspective again, after the process of experiencing the emotion naturally narrows our periphery vision. And we see and we hear and we sense, internally and externally, with much greater clarity.
If our problem has been with another person, we will not react in the same way we did before. We become aware of how little we know.
This feels very humbling. When we allow ourselves to ‘not know’, a much more real and immediate relationship becomes possible.
We reframe what was causing us problems. And we see things with greater objectivity, and discover a way to handle the issue more effectively.
Where we were angry, we can see the fear in the other person and speak to them with greater compassion and acceptance.
And where we feel overwhelm, reconnecting with something more real in ourselves helps to ground us in the reality that we are strong enough.
Back to point 1. We open to greater presence and increased awareness.
To recap, the key skills to practice are mindfulness, naming, and acceptance. If you start to meet your emotions in this way, your sense of wellbeing will start to improve quite quickly.
Use the 9 step technique, which contains all of these elements, for when you are starting out with this. You do it when you are flooded by an emotion.
The 9 steps are:
- See it
- Say it
- Sense it
- Stay with it
- Relax into it
- Reconnect with the reality
- Reframe the experience more objectively
- Become present again