Our emotions are some of our most important assets when it comes to our relationships.
They’re our inner guides -- offering up vital clues about how to navigate our lives.
But all too often we don’t allow ourselves our authentic emotional experience. Maybe we don’t think our feelings are valid, or their intensity overwhelms us. Maybe we’ve been taught that expressing our emotions is weak, or unbecoming.
Whatever the case, suppressing our emotions can become a reflex.
This may work out okay for us in the moment, but if we let our emotions go unattended for too long they’ll impact our lives in ways we may not like.
They’ll always be there, contributing to our baseline mental state -- our mood, attitudes, energy, and outlook.
Over the long-term, suppressing our emotions can affect us in ways that are distinctly unpleasant. They have a tendency to demand our attention before too long -- as the burden of their accumulated weight begins to cause its own problems.
This drag on our spirit can compromise our ability to function clearly, consistently, effectively, and happily in our day-to-day lives, and our relationships suffer because of it.
Learning how to more regularly and proactively process our emotions is essential to our overall well-being. It’s the practice of getting our emotions up and out of ourselves so that we don’t just bottle them up instead.
Here are eight ways we can do just that:
1. Journaling —
Writing our feelings down is one of the simplest and most powerful ways we can process them.
Whether we have a specific incident we’d like to work through, or we want to explore whatever our general emotional state is that day, we can use the page as a container for our thoughts and feelings.
There’s no right or wrong way to do this, because there’s no right or wrong way to feel what we’re feeling. All that’s important is that we write down whatever comes to us -- even if those words are “I don’t know what to write today.”
“I’m sad because...”
“I’m confused about…”
“I don’t know why I’m feeling the way I am.”
“Journaling is stupid.”
Wherever we find ourselves, that’s where we begin.
There’s no broader objective than to allow ourselves to record whatever springs to mind, without judgment or pretense.
As we become more comfortable with this practice, we may begin to have a sort of conversation with ourselves -- one in which our calmer, more capable side speaks directly to the part of us that is struggling most with the situation or circumstance at hand.
There are few clearer signs that we're developing our ability to attend to ourselves than this one.
2. Meditation —
So much of our inattentiveness to our emotions is caused by the freneticism of daily life. We are so focused on doing, doing, doing that we forget that we have feelings.
Meditation is the practice of quieting the mind so that we can listen to the heart, and meet it compassionately in whatever state it’s in.
By meeting ourselves exactly as we are, and learning to observe (and not control) our thoughts, we attain two vital perspectives:
Namely, that all thought -- and all feeling -- is impermanent.
And therefore, that our feelings -- even the ones that most overwhelm us -- are nothing to be afraid of because they will not last.
And secondly, that we are not our thoughts. We exist apart from the very feelings that distress us most.
Once we gain these perspectives, we allow ourselves emotions we wouldn’t have acknowledged before, and don’t take them so seriously when we do.
3. Walking —
There’s something about the cadence of a leisurely walk that seems designed expressly for contemplation.
As we ease comfortably into this rhythm, observing the sights and sounds of the world around us, we afford ourselves a detached perspective with which to observe and understand our emotional selves.
We move our bodies how we need to move our feelings -- forward.
Not in a way that suggests urgency or a frightened flight from emotions we don’t know what to do with, but one that indicates steadiness, composure, and a certain capability.
In this way, walking provides us with the very corporeal experience we need to access our emotions in a nonthreatening way.
It’s no wonder that we often embark on walks with the goal of “clearing our heads.”
We’ve quite literally done this.
4. Exercise —
If walking allows us to casually engage our feelings, more vigorous exercise helps us forget them entirely. We’re simply too preoccupied with our physical selves to give them much thought.
And if we can completely get out of our emotions for a period of time, we remind ourselves of their impermanence.
We realize they don’t hold absolute power over us.
This perspective can make all the difference in our experience of unpleasant emotions.
Because when we feel something we don’t like, we think we have to escape it entirely. But even focusing our energy and attention elsewhere over the course of a run, swim, or bike ride can give us the separation from it -- and relief -- that we really need, and show us that we don’t have to completely resolve our emotional state in order to be at peace about it.
5. Talking —
Whether it’s with a close friend, family member, counselor, or coach, talking through our emotions is key to them not weighing so heavily on our hearts.
Finding someone who can offer love, understanding, and insight into whatever situation we face is an invaluable resource in the ongoing maintenance of our emotional states.
This is the art of holding space -- when someone has the ability to truly listen to us without judgment. We feel safe to express how we truly feel in their company because we trust them not to react negatively to what we share.
Even if the conversation is not intended to resolve the issue at hand in any way, simply having the opportunity to verbalize our feelings can provide just the relief we need.
This is a process of release -- as simple and effective as allowing ourselves to talk it out.
6. Art —
No matter the medium, heartfelt, vulnerable, and raw expressions of emotion set the table for us to express our own.
Art is so adept at this because it depicts the human condition in ways that cut through our mental filter and touch the places in us that we’ve hidden away.
It creates an emotional experience that allows us to access our own.
Art sometimes does this in oblique ways, evoking in us an emotion we didn’t even know was there, through a process we didn’t even know we were engaging in -- simply by taking in the piece, in our own way, in our own time.
This is art’s disarming, emotive power.
Many times art’s function is simply to open the door that leads us back to ourselves. In art we find a reflection of ourselves, whether that connection is explicit, implied, or simply a product of our interpretation of the work (based on who and how we are in that moment). We can then meet this part of ourselves in a nonthreatening way, because we can sense it is somehow both a part of us and not at the same time -- a slight separation from our feelings that paradoxically grants us a deeper intimacy with them.
Whether it’s a poignant moment in a film, the swell of a favorite song, or a poem that puts into words what we’ve only felt in our hearts before, there are few greater or more freeing moments than when a work of art breaks us open in a way we couldn’t have consciously arranged if we’d tried.
7. Prayer —
Sometimes we can’t process our emotions on our own -- they’re just too overwhelming, too complicated, too insurmountable.
This is where prayer comes in.
We can ask for divine intercession to steady us, comfort us, and aid us in the resolution of whatever challenges we face.
We give our burden over to God, to Spirit, to the Universe (to whatever or whomever we wish), and we trust that it’ll be taken care of.
This support may not always look the way we expect it to or happen in the timing that we would prefer, but even the act of surrender itself can help us feel more immediately at ease.
Because we’re not alone in our anguish, our anxiety, or our insecurity anymore -- and we have a pretty capable force working on our behalf.
8. Nature —
Nature models for us a state of being that we can use to attend to our emotions.
There is no resistance in nature, only flow -- it’s in a permanent, perpetual state of allowing.
So too can we allow ourselves our emotional experience, just as it is, as enough -- without the need for it to be any different in each and every moment.
In nature, few important processes happen quickly, and the transformation is never truly complete.
As we spend time in nature, we become a part of this choreography. We slow down. We listen. We remember and reclaim our connection to the world around us.
We realize that if we are to truly process our emotions, we must acknowledge that emotions themselves are a process.
And that we don’t need to do anything more than be with our feelings as they run their course.
Nature also reminds us that the impulse to judge something as “good” or “bad” is a distinctly human construct. Just as there is no “good” or “bad” way for nature to be, there is no “good” or “bad” way to feel about something -- or be with ourselves as we do.
When we understand this, our impulse to reject or deny certain feelings falls way.
Instead we’re able to attend to ourselves with the same love and care that the natural world demonstrates so flawlessly, effortlessly, efficiently.