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Using mindfulness for painful emotions

Most of us are really bad at accepting and tolerating painful emotions. Whether that’s variations of sadness, disappointment, or anger. At a young age, many of us were taught to “get rid” of painful emotions by learning ways to avoid it. Family and friends try to distract us, tell us to look at the positive side, or jump to problem-solving with little space to acknowledge the emotions. Sometimes our loved ones become frustrated when we’re upset for "too long”.

Although our families and friends largely have good intentions for us, they inadvertently teach us that painful emotions are not acceptable or even something to fear.

Ironically, when we believe our emotions aren’t acceptable or tolerable, this belief makes painful feelings even worse. Imagine trying to stuff an overflowing wardrobe of painful emotions, hoping that the door will close. We’re spending valuable energy every day trying to keep the doors firmly shut. But it's inevitable that these emotions will eventually pop out. It can suddenly appear as snapping at someone, rage, bursting into tears, or physical illness. The more we are intolerant and non-accepting of our painful emotions, the more they affect us.

Most people are intolerant of their emotions because they’re fearful that the emotions will lead to “bad consequences”. However, it’s not the emotion itself that leads to an unwanted outcome, it’s our intolerance that leads us to burst at the seams when we experience these emotions. So instead, we want to accept our painful emotions.

Now, this doesn’t mean being resigned to feel terrible and having a self-pity party. Acceptance means changing the way you pay attention and relate to the painful emotions. It might involve being curious towards the emotions, and the message that it’s trying to send.

Being mindful towards your emotions involves being in the present moment, watching your experience with curiosity instead of judgement. We do this until the emotion lessens or passes. With this approach, we are observers watching the emotions as a third-person, rather than letting the whirlwind of emotions carry us away. It’s normal when these emotions return or fluctuate in their intensity as we practice mindfulness of emotions. If this happens, just accept that this is another wave to be mindful towards.

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