4 Ways to Give Difficult Feelings the Space They Deserve

Walking on beach at sunrise looking at skyIt isn’t uncommon for us to move away from certain feelings. We have all kinds of methods to help us numb out our emotions. Many times we do this without even being conscious of it. As soon as we begin to feel something a bit uncomfortable inside, we find ourselves turning on the television or eating something as a way to avoid it.

If you were to investigate why you tend to avoid a particular feeling, one thing you may discover is a belief, either conscious or unconscious, that you can’t tolerate the feeling. If instead of moving away from the feeling you turned toward it in the present moment—meaning you allow your experience to be there without trying to change it—you would discover that hidden underneath that feeling lies a precious gem that belongs to you.

Mike had a good day at work, but when he got home he noticed he could not stop thinking about it. His mind was fantasizing about getting a promotion, making a lot of money, or becoming a hot shot at his company. He then felt an urge to have a glass of wine. Typically, Mike wouldn’t have thought twice about this and would have immediately poured himself the glass. However, Mike had recently begun reading a book on emotional intelligence that emphasized the importance of paying attention to inner experience, so he stopped and questioned his experience. He asked himself, “What’s going on? How come I want this glass of wine so bad?” He also paid attention to his body sensations and tried to know what he was feeling.

As he paid attention to his internal experience, he noticed there were some uncomfortable sensations inside that he didn’t want to feel. He continued allowing his experience to be there without trying to change it. He then began to notice anxiety. He continued to be with it and noticed his whole body felt prickly and uncomfortable. He noticed then that the urge to drink intensified, but he took a deep breath and allowed the intensity to be there with curiosity and interest.

Behind the prickly, uncomfortable sensations, he noticed the sensation of a “hole” in his chest. As he allowed the hole to be there, a wave of sadness came through and tears began to flow down his cheeks. Suddenly he remembered painful memories from childhood that related performance and self-value. His parents used to focus excessively on achievement and accomplishment, and celebrated him only when he achieved things in school. He realized how his sense of worth was tied to how well he did at work. He wept deeply.

Before long, he noticed his experience was much more tolerable. The sadness now had a sweetness in it, and he experienced himself in an open, soft, and receptive way. He was relaxed and at ease, and the desire for wine was gone. He also noticed a deep sense of well-being and, specifically, a sense of value that was not dependent on his work or achievements. He was experiencing value simply by being.

Although Mike’s story is fictional, it illustrates a process that can happen when we are engaged in inner work. As Mike allowed his experience to be what it was without trying to change it, he realized he didn’t need to avoid it. As he continued to stay with it, he was able to see clearly an unconscious connection between performance and value. As he saw through those old templates, he was able to access a true, intrinsic sense of self-worth that wasn’t dependent on externals.

By becoming more open toward our experience instead of avoiding it, you too can access deeper aspects of yourself and encounter deep, intrinsic sources of well-being. Here are some ways to help you stay in the present moment as you encounter difficult feelings.

1. Widen Your Perspective

There are times when we can be with our feelings directly, with our awareness on them like a laser beam. This is particularly true when the feeling is vague, unclear, or not very intense. However, when we are experiencing a difficult emotion, it can be overwhelming and it may be wise to regulate how we are with it. At times like this, we may want to shift our attention from a narrow awareness of the difficult emotion to a wide, inclusive awareness.

Picture a balloon-like sphere (this represents you). Now, inside the balloon, picture a smaller sphere full of spikes (this is the difficult feeling). If you are contracted and tight around the spiky sphere, you will feel the spikes puncturing your inner lining, and you may even burst. However, if you allow spaciousness to come in, your balloon will inflate and expand. The spiky sphere will not touch your inner lining, and you won’t be hurt by the spikes. The spiky sphere will simply be a small particle in a vast container.

There are other methods you can use to expand your awareness. You can do it visually, somatically, or with breath. To do it visually, it can be helpful to be outside. Perhaps you can look at the sky, the ocean, or anything that reflects vastness, and let the emotion be held by it. You then notice how the emotion changes as the vastness is holding it. To do it somatically, instead of just feeling the area where the difficult emotion is located (which will typically be in the chest solar plexus area), you include the rest of your body in your awareness. You feel your feet, arms, head, and so on without denying the area of difficulty, and you notice how it becomes easier to tolerate the intensity. With breath, you simply take deep breaths into the emotion and notice if it becomes more tolerable.

2. Experience the Intrinsic Pleasure of Being Emotionally Intimate with Yourself

If we are able to stay with an emotion from beginning to end, we typically notice a pattern of increasing and decreasing discomfort. As we continue to stay with it, it will eventually cycle through and a discharge will naturally occur. At that point, if we pay close attention, sensations of pleasure will arise as the nervous system comes to a relaxed state.

The key here isn’t to try to get rid of our needs for external gratification, but to bring more consciousness to our inner process. The more aware and conscious we become about our needs, the more freedom we have from our compulsions.

Just as we can stay with the difficulty, we can stay with the pleasure of regulation; we can notice how our nervous system naturally releases tension, and that can feel pleasant. Take in that goodness and soak in the relaxation! As you do this, you may learn that the capacity for soothing lies within. We have the capacity to feel pleasure and well-being without external rewards. However, don’t underestimate our tendency to look for them. This desire is deeply ingrained in the brain. From the moment we’re born, we depend on externals for our survival.

The key here isn’t to try to get rid of our needs for external gratification, but to bring more consciousness to our inner process. The more aware and conscious we become about our needs, the more freedom we have from our compulsions.

3. Notice the Changing Nature of All Experience

Experience is constantly changing, but when we’re caught up in difficulty we tend forget this. In fact, when feeling difficult emotions we tend to believe they are going to stay like this forever. We also tend to concretize them, making them appear solid and unmovable.

The truth is all of our experience is in constant flux. If we’re able to notice the changing nature of experience when we’re experiencing difficulty, it can become easier to ride the feeling. For instance, when bringing your awareness to the changing phenomena in your experience, notice how it all has a beginning, a middle point, and an end. Understanding this constant movement can help you begin to dissolve even the most reified and apparently solid emotional experiences.

4. Share the Burden

Having a language for our emotions and being able to share them with others makes them much more manageable and digestible. In a way, therapy is a training ground for us to become more comfortable with our feelings by talking about them. There are all kinds of support groups out there that operate under this principle. To be able to talk freely about what ails us is an amazing way to make it more tolerable.

There are many ways to allow spaciousness into our difficult emotions. You may want to experiment and find out what works for you, or you might want to contact a therapist who can help guide you. This isn’t about ignoring the difficulty or making it go away. Rather, this is about letting the experience be held in more spaciousness.

© Copyright 2016 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Manuel A. Manotas, PsyD, GoodTherapy.org Topic Expert Contributor

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • Leave a Comment
  • adam a

    July 18th, 2016 at 9:42 AM

    Share the burden? I do that all the time and sometimes feel like my friends may disown me if I unload on them too much

  • Kayla

    July 23rd, 2016 at 5:28 AM

    For years I would open up to my family about all sorts of burdens I carried. I finally realized that they could not help relieve me, and in fact it was causing them to push away. Finally I found an excellent therapist who has helped me heal and recover beyond words. I have met with at least five therapists and I finally found one that is really really good at listening and helping me relieve my burdens. Support groups are people coming together to share space and allow others to unburden themselves. If you are struggling to find support among your friend group, I highly encourage you to seek more qualified and specific support through a good therapist or support group. Therapy has also allowed me to gain an understanding of what my family is seeking from me, which is just simply (they have no time or energy for more) my presence. A therapist or focus group does have time and energy to give you and support you in your processes. I do think it would be a truly amazing thing if the world was moving a bit slower and friends acted with more kindness to support one another deeply but I have found that we are just not quite there yet.

  • Nicole

    July 23rd, 2016 at 7:35 AM

    Hi Adam,
    You may find keeping a journal gives you another space to vent. Joining a men’s group where it’s really ok to discuss your thoughts and feelings in depth might be another good option.

  • Willie

    July 19th, 2016 at 7:15 AM

    I have found often that the more i let myself actually experience what I am feeling that it really, even though it might hurt a little more at the time, I can tend to get over things a little faster. I guess that there is just something about letting myself feel what I am feeling instead of trying to run and hide from those thoughts.

  • Josette

    July 20th, 2016 at 6:59 AM

    You are so right. I have noticed more and more that the more I dislike what it is that I am experiencing the more I will zone out and do anything that I can to stifle that feeling or even that experience. I used to call it going to my happy place, but you know, after reading this I am thinking that all of that disassociating with those feelings is actually making me feel worse than I might if I would just become a little more willing to acknowledge them.

  • Marcy

    July 23rd, 2016 at 9:14 AM

    If you can just ride out the feelings then that is the way to do it, knowing that tomorrow will usually being something totally new.

  • Whitney

    November 6th, 2019 at 2:01 PM

    This article has a lot of good points with which I fully agree. I would also respectfully request that the author not equate the cravings caused by alcohol addiction (or other substance) with merely the discomfort of unacknowledged feelings. It is true that substances are often used to self-medicate, and used as coping mechanisms when people don’t have other coping mechanisms well-developed. It is also true, however, that addictions exist as a biological alterations in brain functioning that exist independently of other coping mechanisms. Addiction cravings can be managed much *like* emotions–by recognizing and acknowledging them as they occur, and consciously choosing to ride them out without giving in to them (having a less harmful substitute on hand often helps)–but they are not *merely* the product of emotions. Improving emotional management alone will not diminish substance cravings (only sobriety will), but it will help you get better at dealing with them rather than just giving in automatically.

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