You reach for a bag of cookies. You pause, shrug your shoulders and reach for a bottle of wine. So what if it’s only Monday?
You flip on the TV and waste the next 6 hours in a haze of munching and drinking.
Time to drag yourself to bed. Just as you are falling asleep…
Your stomach clenches, your pulse pressure increases.
So much for sleep. Your inner demons are back with a vengance.
You chew over the day’s events in your mind.
You were clearly the most qualified. Most deserving. And they passed right over you and picked your oh-SO- annoying colleague.
Sleep continues to evade as righteous indignation wars with outright anger. Finally, you tell yourself to shut up and move on. “Forget it. Don’t let it get to you,” you tell yourself. “Don’t even think about it.”
Whether the feelings are anger, fear or sorrow, burying or ignoring negative emotions doesn’t work. They smolder and then burst into flames again and again, often when you least expect them.
Why Learned Avoidance Wasn’t Helpful
We are taught from an early age to avoid fire. We sprint from a burning building. The shimmering heat, the flames licking up the sides as smoke curls from the roof are enough to send anyone running.
Brave first responders are the exception. We gaze, transfixed as they apply their skills to save the building.
We are also taught to avoid difficult or painful emotions. Ignore them. Power through. Suck it up. Don’t be weak.
When you change your relationship with your negative emotions, you become your personal first responder. You develop and apply skills to effectively and efficiently reduce and eliminate unnecessary suffering and pain.
You watch as the flames magically disappear, the smoke dissipates. You put the fire out. You are safe.
Pain Exists, Suffering is Optional
They say the only two sure things are death and taxes.
Experiencing physical and mental pain is inevitable.
Pain from the death of a loved one, physical harm, disappointment, envy, heartbreak, being ghosted are but a few of the moments in our lives that challenge our resilience and well-being.
But what about suffering?
Suffering is an outcome of a pain. It follows the painful experience and can last a lifetime — if you let it.
Think of the painful moment in your life as a first dart being thrown at you. That painful event triggers the launch of the first dart. and it lands with a solid THUD.
How we react to that painful moment can trigger subsequent darts. These reactions — the darts — are self-inflicted and cause so much suffering.
A simple example: Your friends host a dinner party. You’re not invited. You’re disappointed that you weren’t included. (First dart)
But then you begin to dwell on the fact that you weren’t included (Heads up! Incoming dart!!) Don’t they like you as much as the others?
Did you do something wrong last time you were together? (Warning, more darts heading in at warp speed.) Is your friendship at risk? Why are you so unlikeable???
THUD. THUD. THUD.
Over-reaction, obsessing, dwelling, losing perspective and being worried continue to hurl darts your way.
But only IF you let them.
Seeing Inner Demons for What They Are
Emotions are sensations that pass, just as weather patterns move across the sky. You are the sky because you are the constant. Your emotions are transitory, indeed fleeting.
Research shows most emotions last no more than 90 seconds although they may feel longer when in the caught in throes of them.
Self Improvement Through Inner Demons
Negative, or strong, emotions are necessary for our survival and self-protection. Feeling anger triggers empathy and can motivate us to focus on causes that need resolving.
The idea is not to avoid the pain of strong emotions, but to learn how to engage with it and manage it so that it serves its purpose. We learn to separate pain from needless suffering. This is a healthy form of self improvement.
Strong emotions occur for a reason and are a learning opportunity. Painful moments signal you. Something is going on and you need to pay attention.
But, pay attention in what way?
A Different Relationship with Negative Emotions
Shift to realize that while strong emotions may be uncomfortable, they are neither positive nor negative. Feelings, strong or otherwise, are transitory like weather patterns. Usually, they are the result of your interpretations and worries.
Distinguish between the initial painful event and the subsequent meaning or story you attach to it. Remember, the first dart was not being invited to the dinner party; the subsequent darts — I must have done something wrong, I’m not likeable etc. — were optional.
Change your relationship with strong emotions to embrace rather than resist them. When we resist, they get stronger. It may be counterintuitive, but when we recognize and acknowledge their presence with compassion and kindness, we are better able to move through the emotion.
With this new relationship you will
- recognize the onset of a difficult emotion and understand it for what it is
- know that your mind is leading you down a path of suffering with its unhelpful imagination and storytelling
- no longer find yourself victim of incessant and unnecessary darts
- feel giddy with your new freedom from self-destructive self-doubt, derision and guilt.
- discover a sense of peace you did not know was available to you
And, here’s how you can get there.
Creating Your Different Outcome
There are things you can do in the moment as well as on an ongoing basis to create lasting change.
1) Being sucked into the vortex by your negative emotions?
This is the time to interrupt your habitual patterns and begins to put some space between the trigger (painful moment) and your habitual or automatic responses.
If you want to extinguish unnecessary suffering, practice the four step RAIN technique as difficult or strong emotions begin to surface.
R — -Recognize what is going on
A — -Allow the experience to be there, just as it is
I — -Investigate with gentle attention
N — -Nurture
This guided RAIN meditation will make a difference.
With these new skills to change your relationship with your strong emotions we can return to our earlier example.
After the initial hurt of not being invited your sense your stomach beginning to tense. You use your new awareness to recognize that something is going on and so you pause to be with the experience.
With kindness and compassion, you allow the tension to be there. You don’t try to push it away or beat yourself up for it happening. Allowing isn’t the same as accepting. Allowing is acknowledging that something is taking place, regardless of how you feel about it. (Perversely, allowing it to happen and providing it space gives it permission to leave rather than becoming lodged within you.)
Then you investigate the sensation. What feels strongest at that moment? How does it feel? Is it sharp, soft, rippling or shooting? Paying attention to what is happening as it happens allows you to follow the sensation through its natural life cycle where it crests then ebbs away. It also focuses your mind on what is happening in your body and so it is not racing on with unhelpful thoughts.
Once the sensation passes (and it always does) you smile and give yourself a mental hug. You were on the verge of throwing more darts and you stopped yourself!
2) Ready to be more resilient?
Yes, even the military is training its members to meditate in order to be more resilient, focused and clear thinking in the midst of stressful situations.
Can’t get beyond the image of a half-naked yogi cross-legged on a mat under a tree in India?
No worries. Just don’t think of it as meditation.
How about Survive and Thrive Skills 101? Whatever works for you. Afterall, “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet”.
Mediation is fast becoming an accepted aspect of western culture. Famous, CEOs, entertainers and the military all embrace the value of meditation for being a top performer.
Mindfulness Meditation builds and strengthens the life skills that open the door to your new relationship with the pain and suffering of negative emotions.
You can start with listening to guided meditations and then you may prefer to do them on your own.
(If your anxiety level is extreme, or if other factors are at play, you might consider seeking professional help.)
Being Your Own First-Responder
You know from experience. Working to avoid suffering or supress it is exhausting. Over time, you pay the price in terms of happiness and your health.
Embracing a new relationship with your strong emotions and learning to live with and learn from them will be a watershed moment for you.
You will never be the same.
Here on in you become your own first-responder. You know how to rescue yourself from unhealthy suffering.
You embrace rather than resist strong emotions as they arise by acknowledging, accepting and understanding them. You do so with kindness and compassion. In this way the strong emotions pass through you rather than taking root and causing further pain.
The best way for you to start is to practice developing this new relationship by walking through the RAIN process at a time when you are not feeling overwhelmed. Build your skills and understanding so you can call on them when needed.
From there, you can move on to this guided meditation will also guide you to turning toward difficult emotions rather than resisting them.
Why not begin your liberation by learning how to respond and take care of yourself with the simple but effective RAIN technique?
UPDATE Jan 2020: Tara Brach has released a new book Radical Compassion: Learning to Love Yourself and Your World with the Practice of RAIN
that you may find useful. (affiliate link)