Finding Calm through Tuning In
In my work counselling individuals, couples and families I often hear people say things like “I know it’s silly, but I feel...,” or “I don’t know why I feel so... this week” and then proceed to tell me about the events of their week that really would warrant the feelings they are describing. For many reasons we seem to hold ourselves to higher standards and expectations, such that we “shouldn’t” have certain feelings or reactions to things, and we “should” be able to handle whatever is going on. So often in these situations we are more than willing to offer empathy and support to other people in our lives as they go through various stressors, and yet it is very difficult to offer that same compassion or understanding to ourselves. Additionally, we feel that it’s okay for others to ask for and receive support, but often not for ourselves.
Sometimes we fear that asking for help may result in being seen as weak or unable to cope; we fear judgement and ridicule. Other times we minimize our “negative” emotions, because we don’t want to feel them, don’t feel justified, or don’t feel that it’s okay to be overwhelmed, to feel vulnerable, confused, angry or discouraged. Of course many times we are fearful of tuning into certain emotions because they can feel intense and we worry we won’t be able to stand them if we allow ourselves to acknowledge them, and “let them in” to our experience.
However, these dynamics can often leave us feeling more alone, ashamed, or uncomfortable than we already are. The internal conflict between the intensity of the emotion and the desire not to feel it can result in further distress.
So how do we begin to shift this internally? Let me share with you a few introductory steps you can take, that, with some practice, can significantly change your internal experience. It won’t necessarily take away the feelings or change the situation you might be dealing with, but it can make them feel more manageable and increase your overall resilience. These are things we commonly help clients to use in counselling to develop greater resilience, and achieve their personal goals.
1. Harness the power of curiosity. Instead of trying to shut out the emotion or reaction you are having, take a moment and get curious. Imagine you were connecting with a friend you care about, and you are genuinely interested in how they are doing. Treat yourself the same way. Ask yourself leading or open-ended questions, such as “what else has been going on in your life lately?”
Be curious about what the emotion is that you are having. Often there are more than one. Be mindful of secondary emotions, such as anger, where there might be something underneath the surface, such as hurt or fear. See if you can name what the feelings are. Notice, as you sit with it, if the emotions feel connected more to the past or to the present? Often it is a combination of the two.
2. Find something you can validate. If this situation were happening to a friend, what might you say to them to show that you understand? Remember to consider the concept of treating yourself as you might treat others you care about. What would you want to hear in this situation? Perhaps it is something like “It totally makes sense that you would feel.... given what you’re going through.” Reflect on what makes sense to you about what you’re feeling, given the circumstances.
Additionally, try giving yourself permission to have the feelings you are having. Although our emotions often surprise us, feel disproportionate to the circumstances, or feel juvenile, I have yet to come across a situation where there wasn’t a reason behind any given emotion. That reason may be connected to a part of us holding onto past hurts, which have been activated by something in the present, but it is still a valid part of our experience with something important to communicate. Try to suspend judgement, even momentarily, and acknowledge this piece of your experience. Remember that just because you let yourself feel it, doesn’t mean you need to act on it.
If you’re having trouble with this step, consider sharing with a person you trust or reaching out for support through your local crisis line. Notice what empathy or validation is offered and see if you can take that in.
3. Take in some compassion. Once you have identified the emotion and found something about it you can acknowledge and validate, try placing a hand on your chest, or getting into a comfortable position, perhaps curled up in a calm, quiet place. Take a few deep breaths, repeating the phrase or sentence of validation (from step 2) to yourself. See if you can identify the feeling of compassion and allow that to get closer to the part of you in distress. Notice what happens. Allow yourself to continue to be curious of other internal reactions that come up as you do this. Try to take a step back and not judge yourself for any of these reactions, just continue to have empathy and compassion for the particular emotion you are having and notice what happens to the intensity of the emotion itself.
With practice and patience following these steps can begin to reduce the intensity of distressing emotions so that they can become more clear and manageable. Above all, try to have compassion for yourself if these steps are challenging or feel too out of reach at this time. Though it might seem straight forward, often there are deeply rooted barriers or messages from our pasts that can get in the way of immediately having success with these steps, so don’t give up on yourself after the first try! Through the support of a qualified counsellor you may find that these steps become easier and more accessible to you.
We hope that this can help you find and create more moments of calm and clarity in the ever- changing waters of life! Thank you for reading!