We all experience unpleasant emotions like pain and sadness. For most of us, our default reaction to these emotions is to try to escape. To contract, to tighten up, to fight and hide. So we eat, we drink, we Netflix, we work, we rationalize, minimize, and we judge — anything to muffle the feelings we want to avoid.
But this is just resisting the emotion, struggling against it, fighting with it. Resisting our emotions takes a lot of energy and we can only do it for so long.
Our resistance to the emotions doesn’t make them go away. It doesn’t even lessen the intensity in the long run. Temporarily, sure, as you eat the ice cream.
The dopamine response from eating that food muffles the unpleasantness, but it doesn’t make it go away.
What makes the unpleasant feeling go away?
So what does make the feeling go away? What is the opposite of holding the door shut against those emotions?
Here’s the answer:
Opening up the door and letting the feelings in when they knock.
Now, you may be thinking this is a terrible idea to welcome in a threatening feeling. But what if you are mistaken?
Things are not always as they appear. Our unpleasant emotions, despite what your toddler brain offers you, are not dangerous or threatening. They can’t harm you.
Your feelings are your friends and they are there to give you a message, to teach you a lesson. But only if you are willing to open the door, let them in, and listen to what they have to say.
I love this quote by Rilke in the final frame of the movie Jojo Rabbit: “Let everything happen to you. Beauty and terror. Just keep going. No feeling is final.”
Let everything happen to us feels counterintuitive. Our instinct is to avoid, to run, to resist unpleasant emotions happening to us. We try to seek constant happiness and make it keep happening to us by any means necessary, even means like overeating that can be detrimental.
How to process emotions
You are probably asking, how exactly do I actually let everything happen to me? How can I open the door, invite the feelings in and listen to them?
I’m going to teach you a four-step process I love from ACT, Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. It’s called expansion and it is the counterintuitive solution that has you open the door, lean in, and listen to what the emotions have to offer. And you’ll find as you practice it, the unpleasant emotions will leave peacefully once you hear/feel them out.
I recommend preparing your mind and body for this expansion process by reducing the noise in your head and coming into your body, into the present moment and your senses. Here are two exercises you can use to do that.
Exercise 1: Move into the present moment by engaging your senses
Look around and notice five things you can SEE in your current environment. Look for small details. Things that maybe you wouldn’t notice if you weren’t looking intently. Look at textures, colors, all sorts of details.
Next, close your eyes and notice five things you can HEAR.
Then notice five things you can FEEL on the surface of your body. The chair under your legs, the cuffs of your shirt on your wrists, your hair touching your neck, things like that.
Any time you’re feeling overrun by thoughts, especially worry thoughts about the future or regret thoughts about the past, take a beat and come back to the present with this exercise.
Exercise 2: Deep breathing
Close your eyes and take ten deep, focused breaths. Your intention is to focus solely on the physical sensations and experience of each breath. Inhale slowly until your lungs are at full capacity, and then exhale until they are fully depleted of air.
While you do this, concentrate on what the air feels like as it moves in and out of your nose. As it moves into your lungs and expands your ribcage and your stomach and back out of your lungs again. Notice the rise and fall of your shoulders and your chest, what it feels like to hold the air for a second and slowly release it. Any detail about the physical experience that you can tune into.
Your brain will get busy offering you lots of thoughts and chatter that will distract your focus and that’s okay. Just keep coming back to your breathing and your body.
The expansion process
Now that you’re more engaged with your body and less with your head, here’s how to practice the expansion process.
Remember, this process includes four simple steps that will help you accept and feel your feelings.
Our attempts to barricade the proverbial door against our unpleasant emotions with food or Netflix or shopping cause us so much unnecessary suffering and collateral damage in our lives.
We mistakenly think if we accept and allow our unpleasant emotions, they will overrun our lives. But the opposite is true. As we increase our ability to accept and allow our unpleasant emotions, we decrease the intensity and duration of the unpleasant emotions, and we increase the frequency and duration of our pleasant emotions.
The purpose of expansion is to experience the emotions directly, as they actually are showing up in our bodies. So when you notice you’re experiencing an unpleasant emotion, practice this process of expansion.
However, I encourage you to start small here. Start with a small worry you have. A bit of overwhelm, some minor disappointment. This is a new skill. Allowing emotions instead of fighting them and new skills take time and patience.
Step 1: Observe the sensation
The first step is to observe the sensation. Scan your body from head to toe and notice the uncomfortable sensations you feel. Pick one sensation you want to focus your attention on. Maybe it’s a heaviness in your chest or a churning stomach or a tightness in your throat.
Observe the sensation objectively like a scientist. Ask these questions and any more you can think of to really get a clear picture of it:
- How big is it?
- Is it still or is it moving?
- Is it fast or slow?
- If it had a color, what color would it be?
- What texture is it? Bumpy, smooth, slimy, fluffy, spiky?
- Is it on the surface or deep inside your body?
- Is it heavy or light?
- What temperature is it?
Really get to know that sensation and get a clear picture of it.
Step 2: Breathe
In step two, breathe deeply and slowly and imagine your breath going in and around the sensation. Deep breathing lowers the tension in your body and it allows you to center and to focus.
Step 3: Create space around the sensation
Step three is to create space around the sensation. This is where we imagine ourselves expanding to accommodate the feeling. Instead of tension, tightening pressure, we want to imagine opening, loosening, making room.
Step 4: Allow the sensation
Step four is to allow the sensation to be there. You probably don’t like this feeling and you want it to go away. You may feel your brain telling you to fight against it or to try to get rid of it. That’s okay. This is when I say gently to my brain, “Let it be.”
Keep breathing, keep focusing. Keep telling your brain to let it be. It may take a few seconds or a few minutes, but you will eventually feel the struggle with this sensation release.
Then if needed, you can move onto another sensation you also may be having related to this emotion.
This is how to allow and process emotions
My experience is that when I take time to expand and allow the emotion, the emotion almost always dissipates within minutes. That doesn’t mean I never feel it again. It just means that for now, I have processed the emotion and the struggle is gone.
The feelings may come knocking again, but I know that instead of seeing them as enemies and fighting them and barricading the door with food to avoid them, I can choose to regard them as friends with an important message for me.
Open the door, let them in, and listen to what they have to say.
If you find this exercise helpful and you want more information on Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, my favorite book about this is The Happiness Trap by Russ Harris if you want to check it out.
This kind of thought work is invaluable on your journey to losing weight for life. If you’re ready to get started, watch my free video on how to lose the first five pounds — and keep going.