Have you ever felt so angry that every time you think back on it you’re angry again? Or experienced fear that never really went away? Stubborn emotions can feel like rocks lodged in your gut. But no matter how heavy they feel, emotions are not fixed or permanent. Like a weather system moving across a landscape, our emotional world might be cloudy for days—it might even experience a sudden volcanic eruption—but they inevitably transform. In this interview from 10% Happier, mindfulness teacher Oren J. Sofer explores how to harness awareness and transform emotional intensity into wisdom.
The ABCs of Emotions
“A” is for Awareness
The first step is to be aware. Ask yourself: How am I feeling right now? Simply answering this question names the experience and creates a jumping-off point for a workable relationship with the emotion. Labeling an emotional state organizes the chaos in the mind so you can begin to notice and work with it more effectively. Cultivating awareness helps form the habit of acknowledging when an emotion has taken center stage, and naming the emotion provides space to work more skillfully with its drama.
“B” is for Balance
As your awareness grows, you’ll likely notice more often how difficult it is to stay balanced in the throes of emotional intensity—this is normal. Balance does not mean never being knocked off kilter. It means being okay with the internal rollercoaster and having a willingness to go along for the ride. Pushing away unpleasantness or desperately clawing for a better experience actually feeds the power an emotion has. Instead, try to stay with the emotion. Notice what it feels like in that moment without trying to change it. Taking this balanced stance builds confidence in your ability to remain in any experience and have the endurance to witness emotions as they ebb and flow.
Pushing away unpleasantness or desperately clawing for a better experience actually feeds the power an emotion has.
“C” is for Curiosity and Care
Next, dig deeper and investigate the emotion. Be curious how it feels in the body. Does it feel tingly? Or hot? Where is the emotion most intense? Dropping out of your stories and into your bodily sensations deprives the emotion of reinforcement from thoughts, and eventually it will lose momentum. Curiosity also can reveal when an emotion has become too intense. At this point, it is important to take care of yourself by stepping back until you feel ready to return to your practice. Knowing when you need to exercise care is an important skill when working with emotional intensity in a way that is compassionate toward yourself.
“S” is for Support
When emotions reach a certain threshold where they are too intense to work with productively, tap into your support network. Support can come from friends, family, healthy habits, or resources available to you. Support can also come from inner states of mind, like cultivating self-compassion, loving-kindness, patience, and gratitude. Utilize your external and internal support networks when emotions become too overwhelming. Feeling connected during times of emotional turbulence will help you take better care of your well being and gently work with turning intensity into wisdom.