It's a natural human inclination to want to run from unpleasant experiences, and this often plays out in the way we manage the more painful emotions like fear, anxiety, loneliness and confusion.
Sometimes there are good reasons to numb ourselves against painful emotions, particularly if we have any history of trauma, and need to protect ourselves against feelings of panic and overwhelm that can often accompany these emotions.
But for those of us who don’t have a history of trauma, adopting a habitual tendency of avoiding painful feelings by avoiding either the situations that elicit them, or numbing ourselves to these emotions when they arise, sees us living a half life.
Telling ourselves that some emotions are off limits, scary, shameful or simply not acceptable, limits our ability to engage in life fully and sees us adopt a range of avoidant strategies that curtail our ability to experience so much of what makes for a fulfilling life.
There are costs associated with hardening ourselves against our own fear, anxiety and vulnerability, and it’s a cost that can permeate many of our relationships and into other areas of our lives. Its impossible to numb ourselves to what we consider to be unacceptable or threatening emotions, and still remain fully open to the joy, wonder and love that makes life so beautiful.
Vulnerability demands courage. It requires the ability to face our fears, no matter how terrifying we may initially find them, and to know that they won't overwhelm us; to know that fear and shame and many other supposedly unacceptable emotions can be worked with wisely and gently; that in fact, within these emotions, there may be valuable lessons and hidden gifts. For how can we ever let ourselves be known by another, if we refuse to face some of these things ourselves.
The courage to open ourselves to our fear and anxiety requires great compassion, not hardening and rejection. The compassion to see just how much we suffer as a result of these very human feelings, and to know that we are not alone. That each and every one of us shares in this experience of the human condition. And once we know that these emotions are able to be worked with in ourselves, we are able to respond to them gently and kindly when we see them in others, and this enriches our social relationships immeasurably.
Building a mindfulness practice allows us
to experience both positive and negative emotions, and to see that they arise
and pass away in their own time; that we don’t need to take them personally; and
that they are a vital part of what it means to be fully human, not something to
I’ll write more in coming weeks on how to work wisely with difficult emotions, but for the moment, take solace in knowing that there is another way to work with life’s difficulties that doesn’t involve closing ourselves off to a full emotional life.
Have you found that mindfulness has helped you turn towards painful emotions?