8 Mindful Ways to Deal with Your Unpleasant Feelings

heart of human hands as symbol of loveOne of the principal aspects of mindfulness is acceptance of one’s experience in the present moment. This practice has numerous mental health benefits—but as you may have realized, it is easier said than done. When our experience is pleasant, it is easy for us to accept it; if our experience is unpleasant, we naturally want to reject it.

Why would we want to stay with unpleasant feelings? Humans naturally try to repress, distract from, project, or employ other defense mechanisms in order to not feel what is unpleasant. This obviously has degrees, and the more painful an experience is, the harder our systems work to get it out of our consciousness. So here we are, told that we need to “be with our experience,” yet our natural tendency is to run away from it. What to do?

The good news is that as we develop our capacity to be with our experience, it becomes easier. It’s much like going to the gym: initially it is very hard and we resist it, but the more we train, the easier it gets and the more we actually want to do it. When we begin to sense and feel the benefits of being with ourselves, we naturally begin to do it without as much effort.

Here are some ways to make the process easier:

1. Start Exactly Where You Are

This is probably the most important aspect of being able to be with our experience. As much as we might like to, we simply cannot bypass our experience and be in an idealized place we think we should be. To work with any internal state, we have to be exactly where we are.

For example, we may be feeling a difficult emotion such as disgust, but then may also have a strong reaction to the disgust. We have to work with the reaction before we can really focus on the disgust. If we try to bypass the reaction by saying something like, “I need to accept my disgust,” then we are missing our reactivity. And that is the first layer we need to be with.

2. Allow Rather Than Accept

Similar to the previous point, we cannot force our acceptance of something; we can only have a disposition or attitude toward it. If we are feeling something difficult and telling ourselves, “I need to accept it,” we likely won’t be able to do it.

In a way, acceptance happens on its own and in its own time. The best we can do is try our best to allow: we allow the fact we don’t want to accept whatever feelings we have. We may say something like, “I don’t like this feeling of sadness and I’ll try to be with it, even if I don’t want to feel it.” At the same time, we also allow the fact we don’t like the sadness.

3. Be Curious

Becoming curious about our experience is a key element in navigating our internal world. The more we develop the capacity to observe without judgment, the more we will be able to discover about ourselves.

Becoming curious about our experience is a key element in navigating our internal world. The more we develop the capacity to observe without judgment, the more we will be able to discover about ourselves.

One way to develop curiosity is to adopt the attitude of a biologist doing naturalistic observations. A biologist wanting to understand the behaviors of lions in Africa, for instance, has the goal of simply observing the animals in their natural environment without interfering. They would not say, “Oh, this lion should not be eating that gazelle.” Rather, they would patiently observe and record what they notice. If they intervened and tried to distract the lion in order to save the gazelle, they would not be able to see exactly how the lion behaves naturally.

We can take that same attitude toward our inner landscape. We can notice our emotions, body sensations, and thoughts and not interfere with them. We simply notice what we see and try our best to suspend judgment of what should be happening. With time and patience, we begin to see connections and patterns that reveal a deeper understanding of ourselves.

4. Ask Questions of Your Internal Experience

Sometimes I will feel deep sadness inside and my tendency is to try to make myself feel different. But sometimes, I’ll directly ask my sadness what it needs. “How can I be with you in the most supportive way?” “What do you need?”

As much I don’t want to feel my experience at times, it is there for a reason—and the more open to understanding it that I am, the greater its chances of truly transforming. If I let my inner experience have a life of its own and honor its needs, it will likely reveal its cause and purpose.

5. Find Balance Between Challenge and Support

There may be times when your inner experience feels unbearable, and observing it directly may be very difficult. At such times, it may not be wise to try to stay with it; finding a source of comfort and support may be the better thing to do. This is true particularly if you have trauma in your history. In these cases, staying with difficult material may be counterproductive.

6. Respond with Flexibility

We are complex beings, and there is no one formula to dealing with our inner experience. Each time we meet ourselves, something different may be required.

An important skill we must develop is flexibility of response. At any given moment, any of these tips may be counterproductive, and at another time they may be exactly what we need. With practice, we become more flexible and attuned to what is most supportive at any given moment.

7. Remember That You Are Only Human

As committed as we may be to our inner transformation, we will generally fall short of our expectations. The truth is, the faster we are able to forgive ourselves—to be kind to the parts of us that feel shameful and that we can barely tolerate—the more chances for peace we have.

In addition, being able to let go of the self-improvement project is crucial. The very fact of wanting to improve ourselves implies a rejection of our present-moment experience or circumstances. As much as you are able, try to let go of any ideas of “making yourself better” and focus instead on accepting (or allowing) your experience be exactly what it is.

8. Recognize That Help Is Needed

We can’t do this alone; I don’t know anyone who can or has. In my own work, I have a tremendous capacity to fool myself and stay stuck in repetitive patterns for long periods. If it were not for the help and wisdom of others who have helped me in my process, I probably would not be where I am today.

The sooner we begin to allow others to guide and help us, rather than trying to figure it out on our own, the sooner our inner journey becomes so much easier. If you need help, please seek the support of a qualified therapist.

© Copyright 2015 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Manuel A. Manotas, PsyD, therapist in San Francisco, California

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.

  • 13 comments
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  • chas

    chas

    October 28th, 2015 at 8:06 AM

    so what happens when you find yourself being so rigid and inflexible?

  • Kayla

    Kayla

    November 1st, 2015 at 5:31 AM

    Chas,
    I submitted a comment in response to your question but I put it in the main comment section. I wanted to make sure you see it and I hope that it helps.

  • Gray

    Gray

    October 28th, 2015 at 3:02 PM

    For me it has always come to that critical mass moment of realizing that I am not in this life alone and that I do have people in my life who care about me and want to support me. Do I always wait until the last possible moment to ask for help even when I know long before that that I need it? Of course I do, that’s me. But understanding that there is some help out there for you can be a lifesaver once you actually become willing to let someone else in and give you and hand when you need it.

  • Pressley

    Pressley

    October 29th, 2015 at 8:09 AM

    I often think about where I would like to be and have to be a lot more mindful of where I actually am.

  • Garran

    Garran

    October 30th, 2015 at 11:01 AM

    This might seem a little heartless but I am pretty sure that there are friends of mine, people whom I care about deeply, who sort of revel in having bad feelings. Like this is their role in life to shoulder that and they in some ways use this to make others feel a little sorry for them. I don’t know, it seems pretty irrational to me but I know that they have been offered help time and again and they refuse and there is a part of me that thinks that this is because they are afraid of who they would be without this role.

  • diane

    diane

    October 31st, 2015 at 7:49 AM

    Yes these are definitely the stuck clients that are so difficult for us therapists. Mindfulness probably more useful FOR US to allow that these folks ARE the way they are right now. I like that idea of “allowing.”

  • Carla van Raay

    Carla van Raay

    October 30th, 2015 at 10:08 PM

    In my experience, while a person identifies with their emotions instead of being able to stand back and say, “I have this feeling but I am not this feeling,” then the fear of feeling is too great because their self -image is completely tied up with how they feel. Manuel has devised a brilliant way of achieving this in his hint ‘Be Curious’ with his analogy of the biologist studying lions. A step up from this is being able to feel into their spiritual nature, which is unconditionally loving and large enough to embrace anything at all. I have also found that feeling grateful for the opportunity to feel and heal, automatically removes judgment. Thank you, Manuel, for this helpful article.

  • Ananda

    Ananda

    October 31st, 2015 at 8:31 AM

    It is my opinion that the people who do not accept the help that is offered are either a) still getting something out of feeling victimized or b) feeling such shame and isolation that taking that risk of allowing someone in feels terrifying and overwhelming.
    I often feel rigid and inflexible and it takes conscious effort to have fun and allow for spontaneouity.

  • Kayla

    Kayla

    November 1st, 2015 at 5:27 AM

    Chas,
    Encouraging a more flexible state of mind can start to happen by simply observing ourselves and our thoughts. Talk therapy can also greatly expand our perspectives. I have also found that yoga creates a peaceful and flexible state within my body and this is very much reflected in my mind. When I don’t have enough time to do a full yoga session I find that even simple stretching and breathing exercises can help me loosen physically, mentally and even emotionally.

  • Sharon Glassburn, MA, MFT

    Sharon Glassburn, MA, MFT

    November 2nd, 2015 at 8:18 AM

    Great article! I will be passing this one along. There is a wonderful 20-min guided meditation in Sharon Salzberg’s “Unplug” series that complements this quite well. It’s called “Facing Challenges: Working with Hindrances” if you ever want to check it out. Listening to it was the first time I was ever introduced to the idea of being CURIOUS about emotional pain. Since then, I’ve found that leaning into the source of uncomfortable emotions is often more healing than trying to suppress or reject them. Thanks again for spelling these ideas out so clearly!

  • Carter

    Carter

    November 3rd, 2015 at 12:02 PM

    I love the point that we all need to be curios about our own lives. It is not enough to just accept that this is what is happening. Of you really want to get an idea of why this is happening and what you have contributed to it, and also what you will have to do to diminish its impact, then you have to be willing and ready to take a good look at that inner self. See what drives you, look at what is causing this in your life and commit to making the necessary changes!

  • K

    K

    December 8th, 2017 at 6:34 AM

    I am dealing with hypersensitive disgust. I am very mindful of when I am disgusted, at what, why, and what I do as a result. It makes me miserable. I am, however, very accepting of myself. I have observed myself without judgement. I am also getting “help” as I have off and on for the past twenty some years. I sincerely hope what you have written and your practice as a whole is able to help someone, but as for me, I find this article to be comically ineffective. (And as for asking my issues what they need, when I am experiencing depressing apathy, it does not tell me anything helpful.) However, you are probably a wonderful PsyD in your field. I do not blame you at all. I think the entire field of psychology is lacking in the way they treat and handle patients simply because they don’t really understand. (They may think they do and that they are very smart, and they may be very smart, but they don’t understand or get it right.) I was misdiagnosed as bipolar and on the wrongs meds for I don’t know how long. I am not bipolar. I was also misdiagnosed as OCD with germaphobia though I do not have the right symptoms. Two symptoms were close enough so several different doctors lumped me into that box. Another one told me I didn’t dislike a certain food, and that I would like it fine if a fruit flavoring were added. (Uh, I’ve had it that way, and I still didn’t like it.) I was (and am) still paying various doctors/therapists hundreds upon hundreds of dollars out of my own pocket with no or negligible improvement, yet they do not care or try to alter treatment to help me as long as I keep lining their pockets. Maybe it’s that they feel they’re doing their job as long as I don’t try to kill myself or someone else. I don’t know, but I am frustrated that the field as a whole operates so poorly. Some of my friends feel the same way. I reinspect myself every minute of every day because I know I have issues. Please (all of you) do the same for the practice of psychology.

  • BPsyked

    BPsyked

    December 2nd, 2018 at 7:10 PM

    In point 4 you mentioned that by being with a feeling like sadness , it will eventually reveal its cause and purpose of being there. If you can give an example of a negative feeling and it’s corresponding reason or purpose, that would be very helpful in motivating me to try the process you described. Thanks!

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