a fiery hand and an icy hand meet in the middle of the image to join fingers

Surviving our difficult emotions

Image by Jonny Lindner from Pixabay


The experience of brokenness inevitably brings strong emotions with it: grief, anger, fear, anguish, despair. Not only are these powerful emotions unpleasant ones to live with, the intensity with which they appear often keep us from functioning at our best.

Most of us have learned to deal with these emotional storms in one of two ways. We either allow them to rage out of control such that they take over our lives or we shut them down and attempt to freeze them into numbness so we can function.

I think of these two options as fire and ice, and neither works particularly well.

These apparent opposites share a common misunderstanding of our emotions, and addressing that one misunderstanding can allow us to choose a middle way between the two extremes for a healthier path through these difficult times.

Fire

Allowing our emotions to flame up is a natural reaction to the power and intensity of what is coursing through us. They erupt from our cores like scorching lava that burns its way through our whole being.

It feels as if there is nothing but the pain and rage and fear that is taking over every last inch of our lives. Those emotions leave no room for anything else.

It’s easy to allow those emotions to hold us completely in thrall causing us to lose sight of the distinction between our self and the emotions we are experiencing.

Even our language nudges us in this direction: I am angry. I am heartbroken. I am scared. I am grieving.

Identification with those emotions gives them even greater control over us in a time when we are already feeling fragile and can do greater damage to ourselves and those around us in those times.

Ice

The other option we sometimes choose is to refuse to feel those emotions at all. We freeze them out, burying them deep within, to leave ourselves numb.

On the surface, this can seem like a more helpful approach. It can allow us to function in ways that seem closer to normal without the storms and eruptions that allowing them to rage out of control may cause.

But it also doesn’t allow any chance for healing and keeps us holding onto those emotions just below the surface of our lives where they can fester and leak out in equally damaging ways.

Ironically, this opposite approach to handling emotions stems from the same misunderstanding we saw above. There is still the sense that allowing these emotions to surface will mean allowing them to control us.

We respond to that threat differently, but we are still acting as if our emotions will define who we are.

A middle way

So if it’s not helpful to give the emotions full rein or to stuff them away, what else might we do with them?

This was the question that plagued me mercilessly the last time I went through an emotional storm of this intensity. I could tell that neither approach was working well for me, but I had no idea what else to try.

The practice of meditation and mindfulness to begin showing me other options.

Meditation and mindfulness practice put me in touch with what I call my inner observer, that part of me that is a neutral witness to my life, my emotions, and my thoughts without identifying with any of them.

I began to notice that no matter how strong an emotion might feel at any given time, it wasn’t the totality of who I was in that moment. I began shifting from I am angry/grieving/scared to I am experiencing anger/grief/fear in this moment.

It sounds like nothing more than a semantic twitch, but the shift from identifying with whatever emotion was raging at the moment to being able to experience it as a passing phenomenon that was happening to me give me the distance to fully feel the emotion without giving it control.

I neither needed to numb it or let it rage. I could feel it, let it move through me, and know that it was not me.

This gave me space to feel both the emotional storm AND what was beyond the storm. I could embrace both the painful reality of what I was feeling and stay connected to all in my life that was still good.

My emotions became something I could use as fuel for my own growth and healing and not an indication that something was wrong with me.

And in that middle way of both feeling the emotions and detaching from them as defining me, I found a way to move through them into healing with the least amount of damage possible.

What works best for you for surviving your emotional storms?


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2 comments

  1. I really like the metaphors you use here. Fire and Ice. Ice has been my main strategy in dealing with emotions. Burying them so deep, keeping them frozen. But that doesn’t release them. That locks them up and stores them away, only to have them erupt in flames of fire later when I reach the tipping point. The inner observer you mention reminds me of the “Adult ego state” from transactional analysis. It’s like a computer taking an objective approach to your subjective condition/situation so you can stay “in control” of your behavior and how you choose to cope. That doesn’t minimize the feelings. Those are still valid, but it allows you to not become the feelings or, rather, the feelings to become you.

    1. Thank you so much! My tendency is much like yours – freeze them out initially only to have them erupt later. I like your take on the inner observer. I think of it as taking enough distance from emotions to allow them to be one of my sense. I can fully experience the taste of a juicy ripe strawberry without feeling any inclination to become either the taste of the strawberry or the strawberry itself. Likewise, I try to find that part of myself that can experience my emotions in the same way without identifying with them … or, as you so beautifully put it, without becoming the feelings or letting the feelings become me. Thanks so much for exploring this with me!

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