Dealing with Challenging Emotions During Challenging Times
Several years ago, when I was supposedly already well on my path to a more conscious way of living, I was visiting my parents in Cleveland. Towards the end of my stay, my father and I got into a huge argument. Candidly, I do not remember what the argument was over, just that I exploded, and it shocked me. I was stunned by the visceral intensity of my outburst.
My father is now no longer of this realm. Though, when he was around, we had a very loving, however volatile relationship. He could get me madder, quicker than anyone else. Perhaps it was because the apple did not fall too far from the tree. That day, when I was so angry that I was slamming doors and seeing red, it also happened to be the day I was returning to my home in Los Angeles. So, I had the flight back to think about what had happened, and why my emotions raged so fiercely. What kept playing over in my head was the fact that I had gotten so uncontrollably mad at my father.
For all the inner-work I had already done, spending years studying the art and science of happiness and mindfulness, it genuinely surprised me that I could still get so triggered. I remember, at the time, deciding that I was never going to allow myself to get that mad again. I was taking a vow of “non-anger” behavior. Considering that I am of Greek ethnicity, where we live at the top of our lungs and end of our nerves, that was a big ask of myself. The point is that I did not want to level that kind of hostility on my father, or toward anyone for that matter, including myself. So, I made another decision. I decided that until I stopped being mad at my dad, every day, I would send an email about why I loved him.
The result of this exercise?
Eventually, I did, indeed, stop being mad at my dad. The pain healed and brought us even closer. What I discover in noticing and allowing the anger and pain, and committing to writing a daily love note to my dad, is that in an unexpected way, it opened me to also seeing his goodness, to really absorb why I loved him. It also enabled me to get in touch with what I genuinely wanted from him. What I wanted was for him, once in his life, to take emotional responsibility and to simply say, “I am sorry” with no story, no caveats, no telling me that I misunderstood things. Just “I am sorry.”
I tell you this story because even when you are already on an awakened path, you can still get triggered — this is important to know. However, this is where mindfulness can help. In the mindfulness practice, you come to understand that your emotions still can, and likely will, get triggered. What mindfulness does is it teaches you how to navigate challenging emotions more productively, in a way that is more compassionate to both that other person as well as yourself.
To understand this better, emotions can be triggered by thoughts that are then felt in your body. Or, the other way around, you feel sensations in your body that trigger thoughts. Either way, you have to figure out how to navigate emotions as they come up, especially the challenging ones.
From a brain reactivity perspective, it takes ninety-seconds for the neural-chemical reaction of a thought to go through your body. That is it, ninety-seconds. So, what happens after that ninety-seconds is on you. Your reactions that drive your actions are being fueled by you re-living what happened, what did not happen, what should have happened. It is your recapitulation that keeps an emotion alive, therefore its sensations in your body.
In these moments of recapitulation, mindfulness can come into play in a significant way by using the RAIN practice. A practice that I learned from my teacher, best-selling author, and psychologist Tara Brach.
RAIN helps you to explore with non-judgmental curiosity, your emotions. Where do you feel your emotions in your body? In your stomach, in your heart? What do those sensations feel like in your body? Is there tightness, an ache, a dull pain? The word RAIN is an acronym for the process you go through to navigate your feelings.
Briefly, RAIN explained.
The R in RAIN stands for recognizing that you are having the emotion. In the story of my father, I realized that I was harboring anger toward him that I was not aware of until they were triggered.
The A stands for allowing the emotion without judgment. I let the anger toward my father be there without trying to reason why, nor make myself wrong. By the time I got back to Los Angeles, I was able to accept my feelings. It was a prolonged ninety-seconds, though finally, I stopped re-living my anger.
The I is for inquiry or investigation into what you are feeling. I felt this anger in my face, tightness around my mouth, and in-between eyebrows. Heat radiated from my heart. My stomach was clenched, as well.
Then, thank God for the last part of the RAIN process.
The N for nurturing, for giving that emotion the attention it needs by asking what that part of me wants right now? I wanted, I needed my father to say, “I’m sorry” without turning the table on me.
You know what? The emotional RAIN finally stopped. Eventually, my anger dissolved into forgiveness, gratitude, a deeper love, and greater respect for my dad — this can work for you as well if you commit to doing it.
You can do RAIN as a formal sitting practice. Then, once you get comfortable with this, you can do it as an informal practice — an “in-the-moment” shot of mindfulness that you can do when you recognize something or someone is bringing up a challenging emotion. In these moments, you can quickly check in with each step of RAIN — Recognize, Allow, Inquire, and Nurture — to help you module your reaction to a situation.
I have found the RAIN practice to be super helpful when I feel that I am getting triggered.
So, now try a brief practice on yourself.
Start by settling into a comfortable meditation position, whatever that is for you. As you go through each step, take time to absorb it.
Recognize by thinking of something that is emotionally challenging you right now, though go for something that is not an overwhelming issue. My suggestion is to start easy and build your practice before tackling emotions that are really charged.
Allow that emotion to be, to exist without any attachment to a story.
Investigate where you feel this emotion in your body.
Nurture this emotion by asking what it needs.
Take a few more relaxed breaths and come back to this page.
In closing, know that even for an experienced mindfulness practitioner, challenging emotions will come and go. It is what you do with those negative emotions that matter. Just because you are angry, hurt, resentful, does not mean that you are defined by that negatively, nor have to stay in it any longer than you choose to do so. So, ultimately, the choice is yours — how do you want to deal with challenging emotions when they come up in life?
Two months before my dad passed away, I received an email from him. The only thing it said in all caps was, “I AM SORRY.” That was it, all I needed — that and a good cry. I finally had closure on my anger toward him. When he passed away, I was at his bedside, and the last words he heard from me were, “You were a good father. I love you very much.” He looked into my eyes, and there seemed to be a flicker, a sparkle, of a recognition that he heard my words, more importantly, that he felt them. Then, he closed his eyes and drifted away.
“You may not control all the events that happen to you, but you can decide not to be reduced by them.”~ Maya Angelou
[This article is also recorded the Insight Timer App]