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  • Vanessa Barajas, MPH

Facing Your Emotions

Whether we recognize it or not, our emotions play a major role in virtually every aspect of our lives. The emotions we feel compel us to take action and influence the decisions we make. They help us to survive and avoid danger, to understand others better and to help others understand us better as well. Facing our emotions can make us much stronger and resilient. Despite our emotions functioning to help us, we still are prone to judging them or not giving them the attention they need. This can have a detrimental effect on our mental health and just everyday living.

If we want a life full of deep meaning, true love, and emotional strength, it’s going to involve the risk (and often the reality) of discomfort, conflict, and loss. Often when you have an uncomfortable feeling, such as sadness, fear, or shame, your first reaction is to reject that feeling. If it feels like a "bad" feeling, you might tell yourself that you don't want to experience it. As a result, you may then do something to get rid of the feeling. This might involve trying to push it away with food, drugs, or alcohol to feel better.

Another way we try to avoid our emotions is by trying to control everything. Either by frantically looking for everything and everyone we can control around us – planning, organizing, doing, doing doing; or alternatively we complain extensively about the situation, wanting it to be different and subconsciously believing that by complaining and fighting what is, that we are in control. Bottom line, we are very good at avoiding and not feeling.

No one wants to walk around feeling emotional pain all the time, but when you reject your emotions, you may make things worse. Emotions serve various purposes, including providing helpful information about the world. This means that getting rid of or pushing away emotions is not the best idea.

Our uncomfortable emotions can actually make us more effective in our day-to-day activities. In a 2009 article in the journal Psychological Review, psychologists Paul W. Andrews and J. Anderson Thomson argue that sadness—and even depression—have persisted in the face of evolution because they bring cognitive benefits. There is evidence that sadness makes us better at assessing reality in social situations, because we are less likely to flatter ourselves or gloss over negative truths. Sadness can even make us more productive at work by enhancing focus and helping us learn from mistakes. This is how failure, via the uncomfortable emotions, can help lead to later success.

So instead of pushing away our emotions, we want to accept our emotional experiences. This is known as emotional acceptance. Accepting means that you practice allowing your emotions to be what they are without judging them or trying to change them.

In some ways, accepting emotions means also accepting that emotions will change. When you are happy, you have to accept that happiness is a short-term condition—you will not always be happy. This goes for every emotion, from fear to anxiety to sadness. Feelings are fleeting and usually go away within seconds, minutes, or hours.

Fortunately, you can learn to get better at accepting your emotions. This doesn't mean that this process is always easy. Difficult or intense emotions don't feel very good, so your instincts may tell you to avoid them.

With persistent practice, though, you can learn how to be more accepting of your emotions. Strategies that can help you become better at understanding and accepting your emotions include:

Mindfulness: This practice focuses on becoming more aware of the present moment. A core component of mindfulness is learning to observe your thoughts and emotions completely and non-judgmentally.

Meditation: This helps build awareness and acceptance of emotional experiences. Mindfulness meditation, or the practice of being aware of both your internal and external experiences, can be tremendously useful as you are learning how to accept your emotions. You can try a sitting meditation and mindful breathing exercises.

Talk to Others: When we have open conversations with people we trust about our feelings, it helps us to process them and look at them from a different perspective. It also shows the person you’re talking to that they have a safe space to be open with you too.

Self-Compassion: Sometimes we judge our emotions and get upset with ourselves for feeling a certain way. This doesn’t help us to sort through our feelings. Try to have self-compassion and be kind to yourself, even if you feel frustrated as to why you may be feeling a certain way.

While you might feel tempted to simply avoid feeling uncomfortable emotions, doing so tends to make things worse in the long run. It can also lead to unhealthy coping mechanisms that can hurt your health and well-being.

When you learn how to accept emotions, you take away their power to hurt you. Building this skill can be challenging, but it can result in better emotional regulation over time. Remember ignoring or avoiding difficulties doesn’t make them go away. If you are struggling with emotional avoidance, talk to a mental health professional.

If you’re interested in learning more on this topic, listen to the latest podcast episode of A Mindful Moment with Teresa McKee titled, “Turning Toward the Difficult”.

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