Befriending Negative Emotions

Negative emotions are challenging to befriend. They are hard and well, “not fun.” But the truth is that they have use and purpose and if we do accept and befriend them they can be signposts to what is most important to us.

In addition to being a Mindfulness coach, facilitator and speaker, I am a mom to two teenage daughters. This morning as I drove my 13-year old to school, an avalanche of sadness came over me. Her older sister has gone away to college as a transfer student recently and the two of us are struggling to learn a new dance with one another as we navigate her blossoming independence across the miles. The dance sometimes leaves me bare and raw. At times I do not want to learn these new steps. I just want to hide or detach, to feel safe from this new rawness and missing of my child. Yet my willing presence in the dance itself, coming back to it over and over, my commitment to and acceptance of all it entails, is what will allow me to be fully present to and respectful of her as an adult. That is not something I can side-step. And yet , of course, my mind tries.

A Gaelic song came on the stereo this morning though, a haunting and beautiful melody. In her last year at home, my older daughter would often play her Ipod music for me – including this song – and catch me up on her life and thoughts when I drove her to school. It was our time together. So the song called to something deep in me, asking me to acknowledge what I value. At first, I just breathed and willed the tears away so as not to “overwhelm” my younger daughter. Amazingly, my younger daughter took my hand and said, “Is it Katie Mom?” I nodded. The tears came. “It’s ok Mom, just ride the wave. She will too.” And so I breathed and I invited my attention to my breath and, once my daughter left the car, to the sobs that racked my body and then left it – almost as mysteriously as they had arrived. The unbearable lightness of being. The act of letting go.

This is the genius of our negative emotions. These are the doors into unchartered and rich territory they can provide for us to mine our deepest values. Strangely, we must first befriend these feeling and sensations, notice them, take them in – “Why do I tense when I hear that word? – and even accept them with a kind of curious regard – “What is this feeling telling me? – for these doors to open. When we react there really isn’t time to befriend. The reaction hijacks our attention and focus. The same is true for habits of distracting ourselves or “burying” negative emotions. Reacting or “acting out” can even feel good – it is “familiar”, feels like relief, feels “right” at times. And yet in “reaction” or “burying” there is very little space for true freedom. One of the best reasons for making mindfulness a daily practice is that the practice of bringing our attention to the present moment with open curiosity, over and over, begins to become a “habit of mind” away from the practice itself and in our daily lives where emotions are always part of the playing field.

“Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space lies our freedom and power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and freedom.”
– Victor Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning

And if sadness is a tough emotion to find space around, anger makes this “inner pause” often even more elusive. I have studied child development and read “Brainstorm: The Power and Purpose of the Teenage Brain” (Daniel Siegel) from front to back – a fantastic read by the way. Nevertheless, it still feels jarring, like a slap in the face at times, when my daughters are outwardly disrespectful to me. Even when I successfully do not take it personally, find space and calm around my initial inner reaction of “Hey, did I just hear that tone come out of your mouth?” or find the presence and grace just to be in open and loving compassion – I still wonder.

What I wonder is this:  What do I really want to communicate to my teenage daughters, in the moments they have back talked or eye-rolled, about respect? Respect for self, other women, other humans? Because my feeling of anger in response to their disrespect? It tells me something – something deeply human. It tells me that this way of being, this thing we call “respect” for one another, is actually sorely needed. Particular in this world aching for connection and empathy, for humans to treat one another well, basic respect for one another is needed. When I find this acceptance space and do not “react,” a kind of clarity of “response” can arrive even in the midst of emotional chaos. I can teach and model and set loving boundaries. I can offer my daughter that same respect in return.

Our reactions are automatic paths worn deep in the brain and the lightning speed at which these messages travel our synapses can make it hard to become aware, let alone let go, of them. So, as with all practices, we begin gently and slowly with great patience and great love. We can try to just to take a few breaths when we are in the ache of sadness or the build of anger. Like a loving friend we can hold the feeling and to let it be there – as big and frightening as it may be. We can even welcome it. After all, it is here. It is what is in this moment. Perhaps it has a message.

Feelings are what it is to be exquisitely alive and in a human body. My heartache tells me what is important to me. Our negative feelings ask us to look gently and lovingly directly at them, to turn our curious attention towards them simply as human experiences we all share. The beauty of mindfulness is that we do not need to know where our feelings come from or even why they are there. Mindfulness practice is not psychoanalytical in that regard. But it does give us a powerful tool to, gently and little by little, be with what is. And in that being we can start to sense the space that allows for new choices and possibilities based on what we value. And from a place of greater spaciousness, – even an angry, or sad or disgusted one – we can start the journey towards curiosity and patience with ourselves and others. From that small seed of willingness to accept and befriend can grow great compassion.

Maybe today just befriend a small negative emotion – irritation or disappointment. I’m a great believer in small steps. See if you can just “be with.” For example, “I see you irritation. I get it. Traffic in LA is challenging.” This is different from story writing and holding on – what people sometimes call “indulging” our emotions. This is just sitting with. Being with. Breathing with. Befriending. If only for a moment.