Why Emotions Sometimes Hurt (How Emotional Pain Affects Your Mind)
Meditation is a powerful tool for helping us work with negative emotions. Negative emotions are uncomfortable and can be overwhelming, a feeling that often gets worse when we attempt to ignore them or push them away. With meditation, we learn that our negative emotions don’t have to define or control us, and can even become what feeds our greatest insights.
Emotions are part of life and ideally, function to protect us. Anger, for example, is useful when it spurs us to create a boundary the way a mother bear might protect her cubs. Healthy anger is that which is acknowledged, expressed, and allowed to subside once the danger is gone.
Anger and other emotions become negative when we hold on to them, intentionally or otherwise. Although ignoring our emotions or attempting to push them away is completely normal, it’s also harmful. We might have learned as children that certain emotions are unacceptable or unsafe and that expressing them threatens our relationships.
Avoidance is just one way in which emotions cause us pain. Emotions can also hurt us when mistakenly viewed in the following ways:
Overidentification: Ruminating on an emotion and the story connected to it can quickly spiral. The story feeds the emotion, which is then turned inward and directed against us. This further feeds the story, assigning the emotion to our identity.
Assigning Permanence: Emotions, like all mental activity, arise, last for a while, then dissipate. But sometimes our emotions feel so strong that we mistakenly view them as permanent. This too, can trigger obsession, rumination and overidentification.
Assigning Solidity: We tend to label uncomfortable emotions as negative, but that’s not the only way in which they exist. All our emotions, even anger, have a healthy role to play. Every emotion can be seen from multiple perspectives.
Feeling Alone: When experiencing strong, unwanted emotions, we can feel as though we’re completely alone in our pain. Our sense of separateness may be heightened if it’s not safe for us to share or express our emotions.
Why Meditation Works for Emotional Release
Releasing negative emotions does not mean preventing them from arising. The mind is complex and constantly active. Thoughts and emotions will forever come and go. Meditation is not a means of ridding ourselves of emotion, but rather provides an emotional release by teaching us to relate to our emotions in a more beneficial way.
The wisdom we develop in meditation helps us let go of negative emotions in the following ways:
We learn who we really are: By mindfully observing our emotions in meditation, we understand that we are not our emotions, but the stable, unaffected witness with the capacity to notice them.
We understand impermanence: In mindfulness meditation we notice our emotions are continually taking on new shapes and sizes and they come and go. Emotions are impermanent.
We open to new perspectives: When we separate emotions from their story, we realize no single emotion is all good or all bad. Because emotions are always changing, they can change for the better.
We realize we’re never alone: In awareness meditation, we might explore the truth that we are never alone. Every emotion we experience has been felt by countless others before us. Meditating on this shared humanity can open our hearts and let us express greater compassion for ourselves and others.
How To Use Meditation To Release Emotions
Meditating to release negative emotions begins with mindfulness. As you sit in meditation, observe which emotions are present. Apply kind curiosity to what you are feeling. Soften the mistake of overidentification by observing your emotions as if from a distance.
As you become more familiar with your emotions and how they feel in your body, you may begin to recognize there’s far more nuance than you’ve noticed before. Soften the assignment of permanence and solidity by observing this movement and change.
With the spaciousness you’ve created, you might intentionally invite your emotions to go. Try using a phrase such as ‘thank you, you’ve served your purpose, and you’re free to move on.’ Releasing emotions might also look like expressing them, shouting in a safe place, or allowing yourself to cry. In meditation, you can ask your emotion, what does it need?
Finally, practice concluding your meditation by rejoicing in your efforts. It may not be easy to sit with discomfort, but each time we turn inward to acknowledge our emotions and address them with loving-kindness, we limit their ability to cause us or others any pain. Even our most difficult emotions can become catalysts for insight, learning and growth.