The next time you feel a strong emotion, try labeling it.
Today in one of my mindfulness groups, an insightful resident discussed his feelings of loss as he transitioned from residency to the next phase of his career. He explained that he had to say goodbye to some of his patients, and that he felt intense sadness around this. His normal reaction would have been to try to push this emotion away and to move on to the next task. However, as part of the mindfulness training, he decided instead to be with this emotion. This was new for him, and also scary. He was afraid that he would “get stuck” in this emotion. When I asked him what happened when he turned toward his experience (his emotion of sadness), with some openness and curiosity, he said it moved through him and felt manageable.
The human tendency is to push away our unpleasant emotions. However, when we do this, our emotions can indeed “get stuck.” While it is not always wise to allow our intense emotions to come in at full intensity in any given moment, it is also often not useful to suppress them. They do have a tendency to squeeze their way back into our lives.
3 steps to try the next time you notice a strong emotion:
1) Label your emotion.
2) Notice where you feel the emotion in your body (i.e., bodily sensations that accompany the emotion).
3) Ask yourself, “Can I be with this emotion/sensation?” Sometimes the answer to this question is no and that is ok. If the answer is yes, breathe with the emotion and the sensations for a few minutes. At any point you can shift your attention to another activity so as to not get overwhelmed by the emotion.
The idea is to allow emotions to have some space and to serve as a source of information. When we think of them in this way, they don’t have to be wrong or bad. They are just a normal part of the human experience.