You can learn to relate more skillfully to your emotions using mindfulness. A common mistake that we make, however, is depending on our rational, problem-solving mind to fix negative emotions. Remember that emotions are a complex fusion of feelings, thoughts, urges, and bodily sensations. You can only experience emotions, you cannot fix them.
Trying to Think a Feeling Away
If we try to get rid of sadness using rational, critical thinking, our mind will first look to our memory for other times we have felt like this. The purpose is an effort helping us understand how not to repeat the mistake by seeing it again. If we can see our mistake we should be able to understand its cause and fix it. But what happens in actuality is we remind ourselves of many sad scenarios and re-feel the pain. Then we look at how we allowed this to occur and ask “what is wrong with me?” This causes our minds to search for other times that we felt like this. We end up remembering many instances in which we unsuccessfully dealt with fixing sadness, including this one.
We look at one sad scenario after another from the past and remember how we did not deal with them. Next, we step into our rational inquiry and think that “we shouldn’t feel this way” as we watch the sadness increase. Finally, we conclude that our struggle shows personal weakness and we start “negatively judging ourselves.” This leads us to think that we really should fix this because it is getting worse and we might not be able to stand it. Your personal content in the search can play out in endless scenarios but the result is always the same, bad. Wow, not only do we feel sad, but now we feel depressed and scared because of trying to fix the emotion and control the future! This can erode confidence in our ability to cope with our emotional life.
Mindfulness for Managing Emotions
Feelings must be felt, not explained, solved, or thought away. Paradoxically, if we allow a feeling to be felt as it is, it generally passes in time. We must learn to be with what we feel because “thinking about” does not replace “being with” our feelings. As you noticed, thinking to get rid of feeling actually made the sadness worsen.
With a commitment to the practice, mindfulness can provide a skill to achieve a more flexible approach to living. We can train ourselves to sit non-judgmentally with our feelings and thoughts. We all have the capacity for awareness beyond thinking, to have an awareness of our own thinking and feeling. When we recognize this, we become better at seeing the bigger picture. From that perspective, we begin to gain wisdom based on viewing the actual nature of our mind and body from moment to moment. This is much better than running off of our conceptual thinking and conditioning.
Another way that we can get stuck when we try to rid ourselves, explain, or fix an unpleasant emotion is we enter into a wishing ritual. We start comparing this moment with a moment that we want. The thought “I am sad and I want to be happy” can only lead to a feeling of disappointment.
The mind loves working on a problem. Again, you can’t get from sad to happy by remembering all the times you were sad and then becoming self-critical for being unable to get rid of your sadness. Every time you wish that you were not so sad you are rejecting the only moment you have. You are setting yourself up to take a mental wishing journey only to end up with disappointment. The brain is great at problem-solving but it is not a good manager, that is our job. We are responsible for learning how our wonderful brain works best for us. Thinking does not do well with feeling.
You have been observing yourself your whole life even though you may never notice that you have. You have watched every choice you have ever made. Begin to learn to relate to life more directly through your experience.
“Pure awareness transcends thinking. It allows you to step outside the chattering negative self-talk and your reactive impulses and emotions. It allows you to look at the world once again with open eyes. And when you do so, a sense of wonder and quiet contentment begins to reappear in your life.”Mindfulness: An Eight-Week Plan for Finding Peace in a Frantic World by Williams, M & Penman, D.
Conclusion on Mindfulness
It is an interesting time when not only Eastern and Western ideas are being melded but we are also seeing an interdisciplinary effort to enhance our overall conceptualization and treatment of human distress.
Mindfulness practices provide us with the tools and means to begin managing ourselves in a way that leads to learning to live a life we value at this moment, rather than being dragged through life on autopilot. Mindfulness offers the means to begin the work of improving ourselves by understanding the very nature of life and our own paths.