How to let go of painful emotions

We can use the mindfulness skills of observing and describing to learn to let go of our emotional suffering. Learning to observe and describe our emotional experiences helps create some distance, which is essential for problem solving and adequate coping. 

Letting go of Emotional Suffering: Mindfulness of your current emotion

How to Observe your emotions

  • NOTE their presence
  • Step BACK from the emotion
  • Get UNSTUCK from the emotion

Observing emotions can also be a form of exposure. By exposing yourself to emotions, but not necessarily acting on them, you will find that they are not so catastrophic. You will stop being so afraid of them. 

  • The best way to get rid of painful and negative emotions is to let them go. But learning to let go of emotions is extremely difficult. 
  • Letting go of emotions is not the same as pushing them away. Fighting pain usually makes it worse. 
  • Letting go of emotional suffering associated with negative emotions is not the same as letting go of the emotions themselves. Letting go of the suffering is a process we can learn. 

The emotions themselves are clearly valid. However, this is a new way of dealing with emotions that will relieve some of the suffering that goes with them. It is important to get some distance from a painful emotion. Describe in words what the experience of that emotion is like. This also helps to give you distance and perspective. 

When we learn to accept our negative emotions, we begin to let go of the hold they have on us and the suffering that they cause us. Accepting our emotions, letting ourselves realise that we have these emotions, and that they are real and valid, is not approving of our suffering, or approving of the events that preceded these emotions. We do not have to approve of our negative emotions as we learn to accept them. 

At times this acceptance can reduce our pain. Notice the difference between pain and suffering. Suffering is the pain plus frantic efforts to push it away, and the feelings of injustice for our suffering and the pain of having our pain. 

Yellow Dandelion Fields

Learning to love dandelions

A man bought a new house and decided that he was going to have a very beautiful lawn. He worked on it every week, doing everything the gardening books told him to do. His biggest problem was that the lawn always seemed to have dandelions growing where he didn’t want them. 

The first time he found dandelions, he pulled them out. But, atlas, they grew back. He went to his local gardening store and bought weed killer. This worked for some time, but after summer rains, alas, he found dandelions again. He worked and pulled and killed dandelions all summer. The next summer he thought he would have no dandelions at all, since none grew over the winter. But, then, all of the sudden, he had dandelions all over again. This time he decided the problem was with the type of grass. So he spent a fortune and had all new sod put down. This worked for some time and he was very happy. 

Just as he started to relax, a dandelion came up. A friend told him it was due to the dandelions in the lawns of his neighbours. So he went on a campaign to get all his neighbours to kill all their dandelions. By the third year, he was exasperated. He still had dandelions. So, after consulting every local expert and garden book, he decided to write the U.S. Department of Agriculture for advice. Surely the experts could help him. 

After waiting several months, he finally got a letter back. He was so excited. Help at last!!!!! He tore open the letter and read the following: “Dear Sir: We have considered your problem and have consulted all of our experts. After careful consideration, we think we can give you very good advice. Our advice is that you learn to love those dandelions.

Linehan, 1993, p.94

Have you got an example of when you “learned to love the dandelions?”

Letting go in 4 basic steps

  1. Observe your emotion. Pay attention to all the details and acknowledge that it is occuring. Try to distance yourself from it to get unstuck from it. 
  2. Try to experience your emotion as a wave, peaking and falling. You may find it helpful to concentrate on some part, like its effect on your body, or some image about it. Try not to push it away but rather open yourself up to the flow. Do not try to keep the emotion around and do not try to cling to it. 
  3. Note that you are not your emotion. Do not act on it, but rather experience it. Take your time with it. Try to sit with it and sit on it. Sometimes, acting on the emotion can intensify and prolong it.
  4. Practice accepting your emotional experience. Emotions do not go away when you fight them. You are more likely to do something once you accept them. 

What to keep in mind

Experience your emotions as a WAVE, coming and going, and try not to BLOCK or SUPPRESS  them.

Don’t try to GET RID of your emotions nor PUSH them away, but also don’t KEEP them around or HOLD ON to them.

Finally, don’t AMPLIFY your emotions.

It takes time and a lot of practice to get the hang of it, and more practice for it to become a natural response to pain for you. Start with selecting one unpleasant emotion, and try it in a simple situation. Note how you feel after following the 4 steps outlined above, especially if the hold of the emotion weakens and you gain mental clarity. That’s when you know you are starting to let go. 

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