For those of you who had a penchant for listening to angry young songstresses, you may recall the Alanis Morrisette song: The Only Way Out Is Through. While the words were neither new nor original, they sounded like alarm bells in my head. At the time, I was suffering from teenage heartbreak. I hoped that the next decade of my life would be more fluid and easier. Like an emotional desert island’ where you drink exotic drinks and don’t have to face the reality.
I found it hard to deal with those intense emotions… So in typical teenage fashion, I chose to drown my sorrows through escapist activities. The kind of activities designed to prevent me having to go ‘through’ my emotions!
As the years progressed, the seemingly disastrous calamities afflicted by life continued without pause. The more I tried to pretend a situation wasn’t happening – was as effective of a cure for my emotional distress, as placing a band-aid over a torn artery. But as each obstacle lay before me, my heart squirmed for its usual behavior – escape it, ignore it, deny it. Or, better yet, shove it where the sun of awareness won’t shine!
And then they diagnosed me with cancer, three weeks after my wedding, at the age 27. To survive, I had to find comfort in the discomfort. I had to find the silver linings in an otherwise black storm of troubles and find the humility and acceptance to face my emotions. The only way out was through…
On Accepting, Feeling, and Releasing Painful Emotions
Many have asked me how to start this process of going through their emotions. We are almost never taught about how to sit with our feelings. Instead, we encouraged to ignore, squash, or distract ourselves from them. You might be familiar with ‘powering through’, ‘manning up’, ‘getting over it’?
The problems this advice creates has contributed to so many present society’s ills! Think about the current rates of addiction, over-prescribing of psychotropic medications, obsessions with violence or sexuality, the incredible popularity of self-help books… And of course, the widely held belief that eating more kale will solve all your problems! And by doing so we are encouraging society to build a foundation upon broken hearts, unsettled souls, and wounded spirits.
An unsettled emotion or unresolved problem will continue to pop up until you make the time and space to fully process and honor it. It has happened to me on many occasions. And it will continue to appear as I work through the lessons this life sends my way. While cancer was my catalyst to enacting great change, there is no magical ‘over-the-rainbow’ spot in which you get to live without discomfort. The trick is; will you stand firm in the rapids, being battered by stray debris but firm in your resolution to not feel? Or will you let go, allow your body to relax into the discomfort of life’s chaos, and learn to ride the waves?
We can do it.
Accept that you are an emotional being. You just are. The degree of experiencing emotions will vary from person to person. But whether stoic or an endless empathic fountain, you are an emotional living being.
#2 Observation and Recognition
Identify certain emotional states, and observe how they affect your body, thoughts, and actions. Where in your body do you hold anger? Does it feel like a rising heat or an electric pulse? How does it change your thinking? Does anger make you act impulsively? Paying attention to these clues will make you more aware of anger before your mind even picks up on the thought of: “I’m angry.”
#3 Change Your Relationship With Your Feelings
Just like an unhealthy, co-dependent relationship, we often over-identify with our feelings. If we are sad, we may say: “I am depressed.”
Are you the state of depression?
Do you embody everything that is depression right now? You might be sad, and you have a changeable state of being that right now is manifesting as depressed. These emotions are impermanent and separate from the self.
When you feel upset try: “I often feel unhappy,” or “I have a lot of anger right now,” or “I am experiencing so much frustration in this moment”.
Our words have great power. And so over-identifying with our emotions is like allowing a partner to dictate who we are. Suddenly, they were granted control over our emotions, and we lose the ability to take responsibility for our feelings. You are not your partner. You are not your emotions. We have emotions, but we are not the living manifestation of one emotional state.
#4 Learn How to Breathe
When an uncomfortable emotional state arises, take a moment to breathe deeply into it. You are worth the few minutes it will take to breathe into this space and this emotion. It may feel horrible, agonizingly difficult as if you are being torn to pieces… Keep on breathing.
During my cancer journey, I recognized my mind’s desire to escape the discomfort of possible mortality. This only intensified the triggers down the road- suddenly, every radio or television program that mentioned cancer had my mind running for the hills! It was not until I took the time to truly sit and face death, eye to eye, and breathe – that I was able to come to terms with mortality. It also freed up my mind to begin contemplating hope. This stage could be temporary, it too could pass, and I was worthy of this time to rest into myself.
You know the emotion, you feel it in your body, and you are breathing into it. Now honor it, thank it for its duty. After all, we are emotional beings and emotions keep us alive and in touch with our needs. Then as you breathe out, begin to release. Let go of that emotion – imagine it flowing out of your body, seeping down and away into the neutral love of the earth. It has served its purpose, and once you thank it and let it go, you can move on your way…
Some of you may be thinking: “Well how do I do this every time I face an issue? How can I do this on my own?” The answer is – continue the practice and don’t expect instant and spectacular success. It has taken years of your life to shape you into the person you are in this moment. You did not arrive here overnight, nor will you make great changes within yourself with a couple of deep breaths. Good things take time, and your happiness is worth that time. Yet, when you begin to self-doubt: each breath is a crack of progress. In the words of Alexander Solzhenitsyn: “Only a small crack … but cracks make caves collapse.”