Sitting With Your Emotions: how do you actually do it?
You may have heard the phrase “Sitting with your emotion,” but what does that actually mean? Emotions are biological signals that inform us about our experiences and elicit responses to our environment. Whether our environment is dangerous or pleasurable, our emotions are what motivates us to engage in ways that increase the chances of our survival. When we ignore our emotions, they don’t just go away. Rather, they might get bigger and stronger until we are forced to face them in ways that are, at best, inconvenient and, at worst, painful and damaging. OR we might become so disconnected from our emotions that we numb out and become depressed. Most of us never learned how to sit with and process our emotions – so where do we start?
Acknowledge and Allow
The first step in sitting with your emotions is to acknowledge that you are feeling something and allow it to be. This is a hard first step for a lot of people. Many of us have learned that emotions are a sign of weakness, that they make others uncomfortable, that they incite humiliation and rejection, or that they are illogical and, therefore, should be ignored. Here, you are going to try to do something different. Allow this feeling to exist simply by not fighting it or turning away from it but, instead, turning towards it.
Accept and Visualize
Here comes the hard part! you might find yourself wanting to follow old patterns of trying to explain, control, or banish the emotion. Instead, close your eyes and turn your attention inward to your body. Accept the emotion for what it is without judgment. Emotions are, at their core, physiological experiences. Try to approach this experience with curiosity rather than disgust, fear, shame, or apathy. Visualize the emotion – where does it live in your body? What size is it? Is it sharp? Prickly? Soft? Hollow? Does it have a colour? A sound? This visualization practice helps us to differentiate ourselves from our experience, creating a safe separation from you and the emotion.
As Dan Siegel said, you have to “name it to tame it.” Naming the emotion helps us to make meaning of our experience and figure out how to address the situation that our emotion is alerting us to. Remember, emotions are signals that help us to understand our world and keep us safe. If we can name the emotion, not only do we have an explanation for our experience, but we also have a better sense of what we need. The more precise we can get, the better – this emotion wheel is a really helpful tool to distill the specific emotion.
Seek to Understand
Once you have a good sense of what emotion you are experiencing, how it is showing up in your body, and have a solid visualization of the emotion, you can seek further understanding about how you can respond. You might start by asking yourself, “what is this emotion telling me? What does it need from me? How can I honour this emotion?” For even deeper understanding, you might consider questions like “What have a learned about what it means to experience this emotion? What have I learned about how to express emotions like this one? Where did I learn this?”
Integrate and Release
When you have an understanding of what the emotion needs from you in that moment, you can take action. You might need to ask for help, communicate a boundary, apologize, talk to a loved one, move your body, take a nap, etc. Taking effective action helps you to integrate this emotion into a whole experience. When you have supported yourself with appropriate action, move towards releasing the emotion. Start by focusing on your breath, making your exhales longer than your inhales. As you inhale, acknowledge all you learned about this emotion and what it taught you. As you exhale, acknowledge that this emotion has served it’s purpose – release. Do this for a minute or two. You might find yourself motivated to journal about this experience or create a plan for the next time your encounter this situation. Follow the urges that show up!