We all experience emotions that we are told at some point are ugly and shameful, that society or our family tells us we “should” eradicate. Some of us are emotionally inhibited, afraid to express any emotion. Others of us are emotionally disinhibited, and feel ruled by our emotions.
A common response to experiencing certain emotions is shame and frustration with oneself. Such a reaction typically fuels the flames for people who would describe themselves as frequently overcome by emotion. Addiction, for example, is a behavior that often arises because in feeling one’s emotions a person is overwhelmed, and so they turn to a way of coping in order to deal with the emotion, which completely backfires. This can wreak havoc in their lives, and the lives of their loved ones.
Yet the tricky thing with emotions is that denying their existence does not work. Instead, our suppressed emotions just come out in some whack-a-mole kind of manner. A manner that we cannot control, and might be more shameful than just acknowledging the fact that we have these horribly painful, embarrassing feelings.
Expressing and feeling our emotions, no matter how awful it may be, or how awful we think it may feel, or how concerned we are about the perception of others, is actually easier and less painful in the long run than holding it all in. What a horrible burden to carry all of those feelings around. Sometimes we try so hard to ignore and pretend that the horrible weight from all of that repression is not there, but in reality we are suffocating ourselves, crushed by the tons of emotions we are afraid to acknowledge. Such a painful existence. We do not have to live this way!
This way of functioning and going through the world sometimes does not feel like a choice. At a young age we are exposed to and learn specific ways of coping with our emotions, especially our more “negative” emotions, which I prefer to reframe as difficult or challenging feelings. We all experience a range of emotions, from joy and love to hate and despair. Each feeling has its place in our existence as humans. Assigning a label of positive or negative is often merely a result of the context in which we experience the emotion (Tirengel, 2014).
However, the meaning we assign to our feelings may be unconscious and under the radar of how we see ourselves. Gaining a greater understanding and deeper insight into our inner processes like how we deal with our emotions requires self-exploration and self-realization. Figuring out what we do with our emotions can be extremely helpful and allows us to operate from a more honest, authentic place that deepens our relationships with others.
We may bottle up all of that energy inside of us until it blows up and we unintentionally hurt those whom we care deeply about. If we are not in touch with our own internal processes and allow them to fester they become toxic to the point where the only way to exorcise ourselves from them is to blow up at another person. After a blow up, remorse typically follows. So doesn’t it sound easier in the long run to just feel and express where we are at emotionally?
Mindfulness Self-Compassion is a healthy approach to take when trying to figure out how to respond to our own feelings. Germer and Neff (2013) describe self-kindness as “being warm and understanding toward ourselves when we suffer, fail, feel inadequate, rather than flagellating ourselves with self-criticism” (p. 856). Many of us are more compassionate towards others than we are to ourselves.
In addition to self-kindness, the two other components of self-compassion are a sense of common humanity, and mindfulness. The sense of shared humanity invites us to acknowledge “that the human condition is imperfect, and that we are not alone in our suffering. We can’t always get what we want. We can’t always be who we want to be either. This is part of the human experience, a basic fact of life shared with everyone else on the planet” (Garner & Neff, 2013, p. 857). This reminder of our common humanity can help encourage us to get in touch with the compassion we may feel for others, but may struggle to cultivate for ourselves. It is also transcendental, in that we acknowledge that we are not alone in our struggle, rather, it is one that many have endured and will continue endure, but not exactly in the same way, as we are all unique individuals. This is not to trivialize your suffering, but rather, to recognize that struggle and imperfection is essential to the human condition.
Mindfulness is the third aspect of self-compassion. Mindfulness can be described as “turning inward toward our painful thoughts and emotions and seeing them as they are – without suppression or avoidance. You can’t ignore or deny your pain and feel compassion for it at the same time” (Germer & Neff, 2013, p. 857). Bishop et al. (2004) delineate two core elements of mindfulness: (1) “paying attention to one’s present moment experience as it is happening” and (2) “relating to this experience with a curious, open, accepting stance” (Neff & Germer, 2013, p. 29; as cited by Tirengel, 2014, p. 19). In the context of self-compassion, mindfulness entails “being aware of one’s painful experiences in a balanced way that neither ignores nor ruminates on disliked aspets of oneself or one’s life. It is necessary to be mindfully aware of personal suffering to be able to extend compassion toward the self” (Neff & Germer, 2013, p. 29)
Cultivating Mindful Self-Compassion is easier said than done that is for sure, but I dare you to do it. Maybe just once a day to start. I put you up to the challenge, and believe that you will rise to the occasion. Go forth honest and compassionate one!
Germer, C. K., & Neff, K. D. (2013). Self-compassion in clinical practice. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 69(8), 856-857. doi:10.1002/jclp22021
Neff, K. D., & Germer, C. K. (2013). A pilot study and randomized controlled trial of the mindful self-compassion program. Journal Of Clinical Psychology, 69(1), 28-44. doi:10.1002/jclp.21923
Tirengel, J. (2014). Feeding the wolf: Mindful self-compassion and well-being. The California Psychologist, 47(2), 18-19.