How to Befriend Negative Emotions
by Ria Tirazona
One of my favorite books, alongside Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love and Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet, is Thomas Moore’s Dark Nights of the Soul. It is a beautifully written narrative, or guide, as the subtitle would put it, to finding one’s way through life’s ordeals, whatever they may be. Those three books were beacons of light for me at a particularly dark and difficult time in my life. To this day, whenever I feel overwhelmed by deep emotions, I pull one of them out and randomly flip through the pages. And almost always, the passage I end up reading is exactly what I need to hear. One particular passage that has stuck with me through these years goes like this:
“Every human life is made up of the light and the dark, the happy and the sad, the vital and the deadening. How you think about this rhythm of moods makes all the difference.”
I love this quote because first, it reminds me that all these different emotions we go through on a daily basis are a normal part of life. We are not unfeeling robots, after all. Secondly, it makes me realize how powerful my thoughts and perceptions are.
Over time, I have begun to shift the way I understand emotions. Instead of always fighting my emotions, I have learned to befriend them. It is not always easy, especially when dealing with strong emotions that are deemed negative such as anger, deep sadness and fear, is quite challenging. Sometimes, it feels like it is easier to ignore that they exist, or to displace these emotions by engaging in behaviors or activities that distract us from having to face our feelings. However, as Thomas Moore writes, when we allow ourselves to ride the wave of our dark nights, we undergo a transformational process that moves us towards who we are meant to be. The question here, perhaps, is how do we do this?
First it helps to define what emotions are. The online Merriam-Webster dictionary defines emotions as the affective aspect of consciousness; a state of feeling; or a conscious mental reaction (such as anger or fear) subjectively experienced as strong feeling usually directed toward a specific object and typically accompanied by physiological and behavioral changes in the body.
Given these definitions, I have come up with the following ways of responding to my emotions, rather than reacting to it:
1. Being Patient. I have come to learn to be patient with my feelings. Instead of rushing to change it, I allow myself to sit with it in stillness and silence. This is my effort to give it space and permission to exist. With that acknowledgement, the struggle softens. As Rilke wrote,
“Let everything happen to you
Beauty and terror
Just keep going
No feeling is final”
2. Being Curious. Once the feeling or emotion dissipates, I take on the attitude of svhadyaya, or self-inquiry. I ask myself what it was that led to the experience, what thoughts and processes were involved, and what physiological responses was part of the experience. Through this, I become more attuned to the rising and falling of emotions and how it impacts my body. Also, because I am more aware of the biological signals (i.e. increased heat on the side of the neck), I can shift my response.
3. Being Grateful. You know how they say couples should never go to bed angry? I have decided that I will never go to bed without looking at both the light and the dark emotions of the day. Every night, I write on my gratitude journal. I find that taking the time everyday to note what I am grateful for has taught me how to manage my emotions better. It makes me realize that no matter how strong my emotions were in the day, there is always something to be gained from it. And yes, sometimes, I end up being grateful for having blown my top earlier in the day, for that deep gnawing feeling of anxiety, or that overwhelming sense of insecurity that came my way.
The challenge with dealing with emotions is the fact that while it is within the realm of consciousness, our responses are more often than not unconscious. This is where the practice of yoga and mindfulness comes in. Through the physical experience of asana in yoga, we can become more attuned to the body. Through the mental practice of yoga and meditation, we train our minds to not get caught up in the stickiness of emotions because we know that they come and they go. Through the heightened awareness mindfulness and meditation offers, we can be more awake to our Selves and become happier, healthier human beings.
Unpleasant emotions, much like stress, will always be a part of our daily lives. There really is no way to change that. However, we can always change our response to it, and our perception of it. For me, that gentle shift in perception is where the difference lies.
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