Inviting in painful emotions

Often, during states of emotional intensity, we panic that we will feel this way forever and that the emotion we are feeling will never change or leave us. This is compounded by thoughts such as "I hate feeling this way", "I wish this feeling would end", and "why do I have to feel like this?". It makes sense that we would want to wish painful emotions away because they often feel intolerable.


However, I invite you to try something different about your painful emotions. Rather than wishing them away in the peak of their intensity, what might it feel like to do the opposite of pushing them away, and invite them in and explore them? Are they stuck or do they move? Try the following steps to give this a go. Sometimes it can be useful to try this out with a milder feeling first before trying it out with more intense emotional states.

Four tips for dealing with painful emotions

1. Notice the feeling that you’re feeling

In the first instance, notice the emotional state you're in. For example, if you're feeling irritable, notice the feeling and say to yourself "I am feeling irritated". Identifying the feeling is possibly the hardest part. Once you’ve identified the feeling, notice whether you have any accompanying thoughts, such as blame thoughts ("they always get on my nerves") or self-blame thoughts ("I’m never able to control my irritation, I’m a terrible person"). Notice the feeling, notice the thoughts, and pause.

2. Pause. Breathe.

3. Take a seat or go for a walk and tune into your emotional world

Notice where the feeling of irritation is located in your body. Do you feel it in your belly? Your chest? Your throat? Now tune in even more. What does it feel like, physically? How does it leave your body feeling? Tight? Loose? Tingly?

4. Notice whether the feeling moves or whether it feels stuck

If it feels stuck, how long does it feel stuck for, and at what point does it change to a different sensation? What does it feel like to notice the change from one feeling to another? If it moves around, where is it moving from and to?

It is so rare that we take time to notice our emotional states and dig a little deeper to notice the physical experience of our emotions. But when we do, we might start to notice that they are are not stuck or fixed, but that they move and change. They can feel bigger and smaller, lighter or darker, and vary in the location of our body. In the peak of emotional intensity, it can be worth holding this in mind. Even if it feels impossible in the particular moment to tune into the physical sensations, just having the awareness and knowledge that the feeling will change and move can be of comfort.

Here are some apps that can help you develop the practice of tuning in more regularly. It is a practice that becomes easier the more you do it.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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London N6 & Lewes BN7
Written by Dr Charlotte Whiteley, Chartered Psychologist, CPsychol, HCPC and BPS reg
London N6 & Lewes BN7

I am a chartered psychologist specialising in relationships and couples therapy, mindfulness, sexuality and gender, loneliness and life transitions (births, deaths and illnesses). I pay particular attention to our relationship with ourselves and others and how this impacts on our thoughts, feelings and emotional wellbeing.

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