“Sitting” with Painful Emotions


When strong emotions like fear, sadness, anger, and other “hurts” come up, they can be painful. Feeling these emotions is painful, so many of us choose not to really feel them. They’re there, the event that triggered the feelings is still there, but most of us immediately try to get rid of them. We distract ourselves with alcohol, a movie, TV, drugs, friends, sleep – any number of things that are little escapes from the pain.

We’ll turn to anything to get “rid” of the feelings, but we really aren’t getting rid of them at all. We ignore and distract and dismiss. Its natural to want to reduce suffering and avoid pain whether it is emotional or physical. Its difficult to accept emotional pain and do nothing to stop it or fight it.

A lot of us learn from parents and early caregivers that having “fits”, bottling up, distracting, stuffing emotions down, or even using substances or engaging in self-harm is the way to handle painful feelings. We’re often taught as children that expressions of anger or disagreement or hurt can only be expressed in certain ways or not at all. When that carries into adulthood, problems develop.

We think that we’re minimizing pain with whatever behavior we’re engaging in, but really we’re amplifying it. In to short term a drink or self-harm may feel like it stops or releases or relaxes the emotional pain we’re in, but in the longer term, the pain spikes. Guilt or shame about self-harm, substance use, or knowing we didn’t “deal with” an issue can strike. Emotions that aren’t experienced and expressed are sort of stored for a later time. The emotion and its related pain stay present, having never really been allowed to surface and be addressed.

When we fight painful feelings, we judge it, push it away, avoid it, and then it triggers other painful emotions. It amplifies over time and through continued use of poor coping mechanisms we usually don’t develop the healthy coping mechanisms we need to properly address emotional pain in the future.

Sitting with uncomfortable emotions is the key to really allowing them to pass. This means allowing them to happen, not judging them as good or bad (or inconvenient or anything else), not judging ourselves for having them, and resisting the pull to get rid of them as quickly as possible.

An example:

A week ago you and your cousin made plans to spend time together and see a movie, but he cancels when another friend offers he and his wife a gift certificate for a hotel and dinner that had to be used that same weekend. Your feelings are hurt because you made plans in advance and were looking forward to the time with them, and ultimately you feel like you got dumped because they got a better offer.

You might be telling yourself, “It makes sense that he’d go because it’s a rare opportunity; I’m stupid for feeling hurt; I need to get over it.” That sort of thinking and self-talk creates additional feelings of frustration and anger with yourself on top of the original hurt. Pause instead and spend some time sitting with your feelings. That sort of thinking or self-talk would look like this, “It makes sense that I’m hurt because I was really looking forward to our time together; I feel hurt that he chose the weekend getaway over me, and its OK that I feel that way, most people would.”

While this different manner of self-talk and thinking won’t stop the pain, they do prevent addition of more pain.

Here are 3 tips for sitting with emotions:

  1. Observe emotions. Sit with emotions by noting what emotions are there and what you’re experiencing. Using the example above, this might sound like, “I’m feeling hurt that my cousin chose to go on the dinner and hotel night instead of spending the planned time with me. I’m worrying that this means that we aren’t close. I feel like I want to cry. Now I’m noticing that I’m judging myself because I don’t want to cry. I feel anger that I want to cry. This is uncomfortable, but I’m alright. I can tolerate this. This is temporary.”
  2. Validate emotions. Validating emotions is to accept them. You don’t judge them, so no additional pain is triggered. Refusing to validate emotions might have us tangled up in additional judgement. Refusing to validate can have us saying things like, “Damn, I feel angry with my cousin, and I’m so sad that I want to cry! What is wrong with me? He’s my cousin and I know I’ll see him some other time!” With that comes self-judgment, anxiety about the relationship, and more pain. If you validate that would look more like, “I’m angry and sad about my cousin choosing to break our plans right now.” From there you can focus on problem-solving. “Do I need to discuss this issue with my cousin?” Or, maybe you’re just especially sensitive to this because of other things going on in your life, and those issues and related emotions need to be dealt with first.
  3. Focus on present. Focusing attention on the present instead of spending time in the experience or event that has just passed and created the painful feelings can be helpful. Fixating on the feeling may involve focusing on the feeling or on the details of what happened, when there are things going on in the present moment that will be helpful to focus on. Pick a few things in your moment to observe: things you can hear, see, touch, taste, and smell. Yes, the event happened and created some painful feelings, but you’re in this moment right now – and this moment is ok! Find a few things about the moment you’re in to refocus yourself.

Sitting with emotions is difficult. That’s why so few of us do it! It is a skill that can be developed over time with practice. Allowing yourself the time and space to try can be very beneficial!


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