None of us want to feel negative emotions any longer than we have to. Yet sometimes when they sneak up on us, it seems almost impossible to just let them go. Like sandspurs that stick to the bottom of your pants when you go out for a walk, negative emotions almost have a magnetic quality to them.
They stick to our minds, causing unease and tension in the body. But just like that sandspur, we can lovingly and courageously reach toward the emotion and let go of it - and its accompanying stress and pain.
There’s a Buddhist parable about the pain of the two arrows. When something painful happens, it’s like getting shot with an arrow. It triggers that initial sensation of pain. It’s normal to feel emotions like anger, frustration, shame, guilt, or grief as a result. Yet our minds often add an unnecessary layer of pain.
Whether you unexpectedly get laid off or have a heated argument with your partner, the floodgate of emotions opens up. This is the first arrow. You may then find yourself stewing in thoughts of anger, frustration, powerlessness, or fear...for days, weeks, or months after the triggering event. This mental rumination is the second arrow.
Practicing mindfulness can help you let go of this self-inflicted second arrow so that you don’t cause yourself any extra pain. In this post, I’ll walk you through some simple steps you can use to start releasing painful emotions. In future posts, we will apply these steps to some of the most common difficult emotions we all face.
The decision to release a negative emotion is the first and most important step. It means you’re willing to do what’s necessary to care for your mental well-being. Your body will benefit as well since releasing stress allows it to function more optimally. When the tension flushes out, you’ll be able to feel more peace, sleep better, and focus more.
When you learn to practice mindfulness, you are training your mind to pause when difficult situations arise. You notice the first arrow but respond in a more conscious manner so you don’t shoot the second arrow into your own chest.
Once you decide to let go of a painful emotion, use these five steps as guidance. None of them involve denying or suppressing your emotions or the triggering event. Rather, they focus on a process for turning toward what is happening, naming it, sensing into it, and observing it without judgement.
When that first arrow hits, acknowledge the presence of the pain. Recognize that you are feeling something you don’t want to feel. Label the emotions with words. Journal about them. This helps you disidentify your sense of self from them.
Science shows that putting our feelings into words diminishes emotional reactivity by decreasing activity in the amygdala - the brain’s emotional center. This in turn helps slow down the rush of stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol that cause physical unease and tension.
Without judgment, notice what your mind is saying about the emotion you’re feeling. Notice the mental patterns that often surface without your awareness. This is not the time to try to find an answer to a problem but to simply be with what is in a curious manner.
Emotions are essential to being human and not something to be banished. They require your kind attention. Typically, we’re automatically engaged in behavior or thinking that either distracts us from an emotion or magnifies it. Instead, as best you can, try to turn toward your emotion itself - holding yourself with kindness as you do so, because it’s not easy and not what we’re used to doing. Let thoughts be in the background, and instead turn toward the energetic quality of the emotion itself. This largely means feeling it in your body. Self-compassion and non-judgment are essential here. In essence, you’re allowing yourself to feel what you’re feeling. You’re beginning to turn toward your emotion rather than away.
You’ve labeled your feelings and put the mental narrative associated with them in the background of your awareness. Now it’s time to settle into your body and notice the accompanying sensations. This is often the part many of us seek to avoid. We distract ourselves with other activities - and sometimes even substances - just so we don’t have to feel our raw emotions on the physical level.
When you notice your mind ruminating on the triggering event, bring your attention to your body. Where in your body can you feel this emotion? What is the sensation like? Is it a tight feeling in your chest or a knot in your stomach? Can you allow that feeling to be there without trying to push it away? Can you extend compassion to yourself because this is difficult? A kind inner voice goes a long way here.
Focusing on the sensations in your body quiets the narrative part of your brain. You switch from that reactive “autopilot” mode to a calmer and more conscious space. Tuning into the present moment cuts the cord to the mental association with the past or worries about the future. 
When you find yourself amidst a painful situation, one of the quickest ways to find relief is to take a deep breath. Move your attention from your thoughts to the sensation of breathing in and out.
If you are processing your emotions after the painful event has occurred, designate a specific amount of time to just sit. Even 5 or 10 minutes can prove to be soothing.
Your body may want to get up and do anything but feel your emotions. Your mind may want to cling to thoughts or beliefs like “this shouldn’t be happening.” Let thoughts be in the background awareness as you return to the feeling of your breath in the foreground. Your breath is your anchor.
Notice that you are able to feel and perceive your emotions. This means you are not them. The emotions are here and that is ok. They will pass - just as other difficult emotions have passed before.
There is something larger in you that is noticing all of this happening. Something in you can observe the unpleasant sensations without being threatened or consumed by them.
If you notice yourself judging your emotions while doing this, imagine that you are simply sitting with a friend. Can you be compassionate with yourself as you are feeling your pain or discomfort? This is the attention and kindness that your emotion needs.
“To let go does not mean to get rid of. To let go means to let be. When we let be with compassion, things come and go on their own.” – Jack Kornfield
It is through turning toward your emotions that you learn from your own experience that they are a temporary experience you can withstand. They will eventually move through and out of you. The larger part of you that is observing all of this does not get consumed by these time-limited manifestations of emotional energy, and you come out stronger, more resilient.
Practicing mindfulness meditation as a regular part of your life builds the inner skills for working with negative emotions in a healthy way. Over time, you learn from your own experience that you can do this. Daily meditation builds your emotional muscle of resilience.
If you’d like some guidance on how to integrate mindfulness and meditation into your life so that you no longer feel swept up by painful emotions, save your spot in my next Mindfulness for Stress Relief class here.
New to mindfulness and want a quick overview of how it can benefit you? Access my free webinar here and you will also learn three simple practices that you can use to reduce stress anytime, anywhere.
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