Emotional life is complex and, more to the point, mysterious. Within seconds, we can find ourselves lost in a sea of emotion, unable to grasp, understand, and confidently emerge from what is coming over us. As a sensitive, introverted, and deep-thinking youth, I found myself tossed around by waves of deep sadness, anxiety, and desperation throughout my teenage years and into early adulthood. After each seemingly endless bout of emotion, I would find myself reaching the steadiness of shore but without having found any sense or meaning in the turmoil. Approaching thirty as a still sensitive, still introverted, and still deep-thinking human, I continue to experience the depths of human emotion; but, in having found tools to explore and untangle the complexity of these feelings, I find deeper relief and insight into the meanings behind these challenging experiences.
Just as waves rejuvenate the ocean by stirring up nutrients for feeders and transferring large amounts of energy, our own waves provide us with opportunities for self-discovery and personal growth. We cannot control the outside world, but we can intimately explore the terrain within ourselves by practicing these five tools of awareness, reflection, and openness during and after our emotional spells
1. Step back and observe.
Practice paying attention to what is happening in the body and mind as emotions rise. Is there a particular sensation as the experience first creeps up? What happens next? Are there any areas in the body that are firing up, shutting down, or disconnecting? What is the mind saying? If we practice ‘stepping back’, meaning that we become the observer, we gain clues — not answers — into what underlies our experience. It is not about madly searching for crystal clear explanations for our feelings; instead, it is about honing our skills of compassionate attention and awareness.
2. Remember: this too shall pass.
A simple reminder that this is just a momentary storm does not cause the storm to back down, but it does help us to become the observer once again. We can easily be drowned in the belief that this feeling is permanent, but the truth is that it is transitory. This is not to diminish the validity of our experience; it is simply to help us zoom out and view the happenings of our life as if they were as natural and necessary as the seasons, which they are.
3. Let things be without judgment.
We often confuse or invalidate our own experience by flooding ourselves with expectations of how we should or should not be feeling. We might judge something as being too insignificant to spark our frustration or we may have learned growing up that a particular emotion, let’s say anger, is not worthy, attractive, or valuable. These judgments do not help us to uncover the root cause or meaning behind our feelings; instead, they push them back down to where they came from until they inevitably come bubbling back up to the surface. This non-judgment does not equate to lashing out or acting on every emotion; we can take time to ourselves to sit with our feelings and to watch them with unconditional acceptance, observing what insights arise.
4. Broaden the lens.
Once the feelings and emotions have been accepted and observed, we can take time to explore them with an open and curious mind. In Bill Plotkin’s book, Nature and the Human Soul, he writes, “Look at your values revealed by this emotion, as well as your desires, limitations, needs, hopes, loves, fidelities, beliefs, attitudes, sensitivities, inner conflicts, other emotions with which this one conflicts, childhood survival strategies, and your old scripts and stories about yourself and the world.” It is easy to focus solely on one story or explanation that justifies our experience, but when we consider all of the possible lenses, we might find a deeper, bigger-picture understanding of our experience. This embrace and honest reflection helps us to process and integrate the emotion.
5. Find the courage to share.
Though at times it can feel like we are alone in our human happenings, our experiences are largely universal. Brené Brown writes, “Vulnerability is the birthplace of love, belonging, joy, courage, and creativity. It is the source of hope, empathy, accountability and authenticity. If we want greater clarity in our purpose or deeper or more meaningful spiritual lives, vulnerability is the path.” Sharing our self-explored emotional experience in a safe space — with a valued and trusted friend, family member, or partner — can help us to deepen our connections and feel further into our shared humanity. With the right support, we might find greater clarity and meaning in the waves that meet us.
Welcoming our waves is not an easy task; it requires courage, patience, compassion, and acceptance. It is not a practice that renders us untouchable — the waves will continue to rise — but it enhances our ability to see through to what sits beneath the surface. Braving the storm gets us one step closer to finding buried treasure — to uncovering the inner gold that helps bring clear-sightedness and meaning to the ever-shifting journey.