Dear Therapist: I seek out ways to improve my mental health and hear and read experts say “sit with your emotions” What does this mean practically? What do you suggest we actually do in those moments?Frame Community Therapist Pauline Peck weighs in...
"Sitting with your emotions" is one way of saying, let yourself process the emotion without immediately jumping to fix or change it. Learning how to do this is such a critical life skill to know how to do but before I help, let me back up a bit and say a bit about why this can be hard.
Knowing how to handle our emotions is an essential skill for living life and yet, something we rarely learn (or learn well) from our families, schooling, relationships, or media at large. As a society, we have limited basic information about a very important aspect of our wellbeing.
In order to be able to "sit with our emotions," first we must know what emotions we are feeling. While this may sound simple, it is not! Many of us have been given messages about emotions that are harmful or wrong. We might believe that there are "right and wrong emotions" to feel at any given time or that certain emotions are "good or bad" emotions to feel. We might believe that allowing ourselves to feel an emotion will lead to poor decisions. If we believe any of these myths, when we are feeling an emotion, we may then judge it or become afraid of it or try to change it some way - thus creating a messy spiderweb of emotions and thoughts and beliefs.
An emotion is just an electrochemical response to something happening internally or externally, but when add in familial and social messages around what is and isn't appropriate to feel, we may struggle to even identify what we are feeling. Add in that as humans, we can feel multiple emotions simultaneously, and you're actually talking about a pretty high level skill that will take patience, curiosity, and practice.
One way to cultivate this is to get better at identifying what you are feeling. There are five universal emotions: fear, anger, enjoyment, sadness, and disgust. (See Paul Ekman's work with the Dalai Lama for a cool, interactive website all about emotions here). Emotions live in your body and correlate with physiological sensations. Additionally, no emotion lasts forever. There is often an arc to emotions with a build up, a peak, and a come down. "Sitting with our emotions" refer to letting the emotions move through their natural process and become metabolized.
So when you feel something, "sitting with it," might mean taking a moment (it doesn't have to be while sitting down), to check in and say to yourself, "I am feeling something. I wonder what emotion I am feeling. I wonder where I am feeling it." Ask yourself which general category of emotion fits. Maybe you identify one or even two. Naming an emotion helps our brains begin to process and move through them. Whether you can identify your emotions in that moment or not, check in on where you feel the emotion in your body. Tightness in your chest? Sharp pain in your throat? Again, bringing awareness to the physical symptoms contains our emotions and helps us more curiously watch how moment to moment, things shift. Just doing these two steps might already help you feel less whatever you were feeling. You might find that the tightness and sharpness soften as you bring awareness to them, and maybe breathe in some deep breaths. Doing all of this with a self-compassionate and nonjudgmental stance will be most useful. Judgment only hardens the emotion and makes the process harder for us.
The idea is that emotions - even intense ones - have an expiration date. They come in with messages for us and then dissipate. This is what they are biologically designed to do. Sitting with our emotions allows them to do their natural thing without our negative interference which adds to our suffering and the amount of overall distress. We can also give ourselves some TLC while we feel whatever we are feeling. After sitting, we might ask, "what do I now need?" Learning to meet the needs of our emotions is another question for another day though :)
About the author: Pauline Yeghnazar Peck, M.A., M.M.F.T., Ph.D.,is a licensed psychologist in CA and NY with a private practice in Santa Barbara. Specializing in anxiety, life transitions, trauma, and multicultural issues, she works mostly with the children of immigrants and cross cultural couples to break patterns of intergenerational trauma and create the love, work, and lives they feel happy to call their own. Read more of her content, or reach out directly, but viewing her Frame profile here.
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