Working with Difficult Emotions

My friend, Tabitha, and I raised our young children together, our families vacationed together, and we relied on each other for support over the years. A few years ago, I had a terrible conflict with Tabitha. She came away from an interaction between us feeling judged and abandoned by me. She expressed her hurt about this incident with angry accusations. I found myself reeling with intense emotions after several frustrating and hurtful exchanges with Tabitha. She was incredibly hurt and angry and unwilling to talk things out. I was hurt and angry too. We were both reactive and blaming.

After the conflict, I found myself arguing with Tabitha in my head, trying to explain my perspective and actions. My mind kept pointing to where she was wrong and why I had to take the measures I took. I replayed our interactions over and over. I felt adrenaline surges that come with intense anger or threat. I was caught up in angry ruminations and imaginary, heated conversations with Tabitha. I kept trying to prove how right I was and point to her behavior as the source of the problem. I had never had a friendship rupture. I identified as a good, kind, and loyal friend; I couldn’t resolve the fact that Tabitha didn’t see me that way anymore. My mind kept trying to win an argument that couldn’t be won.

Where There is Shame There is Blame

Distressing ruminations consumed me for several days and disrupted my sleep. A colleague once used the expression, “where there is shame there is blame”;  the expression is helpful in understanding reactive behavior in myself and others. Underneath my angry thoughts – “How dare you accuse me of being a bad friend, look at all you have done wrong!” – was fear and shame. Anger was employed as an attempt to protect myself from my dark fears. Maybe I wasn’t so good? Maybe I was a cruel person, not worthy of any friendships! No wonder I continued to argue in my head with my friend. My mind was alert to the danger of being unlovable, a bad person.

I tried to shove away my shame by blaming Tabitha. It was an exhausting, endless circular loop of hot angry thoughts and emotional suffering. Fortunately, I had had some basic exposure to concepts of mindfulness and self-compassion. Out of desperation, I came around to using Buddhist informed perspectives, some of which stem from Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) to deal with my pain and get some relief.

Dropping the Story Line

Pema Chodron, an American Buddhist nun and author describes ways that we can learn to let go of the “story line” that fuels reactive emotions. In Chodron’s book, Living Beautifully with Uncertainty and Change, she writes that our attachment to the “story line” is an attempt to maintain “a predictable identity”. In my conflict with Tabitha, I was deeply distressed by how my friend perceived me. Her angry hurt triggered shame and doubts about my own worth. My mind, thinking in black or white terms, kept trying to put the blame on someone (“either she is bad or I am bad”). It took a while to get to the place where I could accept that Tabitha viewed me negatively, that I had hurt her, AND that I was ultimately still a good (enough) person and still worthy of love.

Self-Compassion: A Philosophical Stance

In general, I aim to have a compassionate stance toward myself and others. When I pull myself away from my active inner critic, I come back to the belief that I’m worthy of love simply because I’m a human being, no strings attached. This is a kind of faith I choose to have in myself and others. I suffer and am imperfect like all people but I am good (enough) at my core. Self-compassion helps when shame threatens to eclipse my own sense of fundamental goodness. I had to return to this self-compassionate stance repeatedly during this difficult time with Tabitha.

Letting Go of Control

How others see us is truly not within our control. We have control over our own actions but not the perceptions others have of us. This is a very useful ACT concept. I had to accept that someone I cared about was furious with me and unwilling to work it out. How she viewed me was out of my control (I had to keep telling myself that). From her perspective, maybe I was a bad friend. The good news is, regardless of how Tabitha felt about me,  I could still choose to offer myself some basic acceptance, warts and all.

Labeling My Thoughts and Emotions

I then began to work on interrupting my reactive ruminations by simply noticing  judgmental thoughts and labeling them. When I argued in my head with Tabitha, I would  catch myself and say, “there is anger, there I am judging her again”. I tried to notice these thoughts without fusing with them completely (an ACT concept). Labeling my angry and judgmental thoughts served as an interruption to my story line. I could drop the endless, looping thoughts simply by labeling them as “judgments” or “the Tabitha story”.

Emotion as Sensation

Chodron encourages letting go of the words that increase intense emotion and instead focusing on emotion as simply a physical sensation. I used a Mindfulness exercise from a workbook called The Mindfulness and Acceptance Workbook for Anxiety to work on  feeling emotion in my body, as a sensation. The exercise is called Acceptance of Thoughts and Feelings. A component of the exercise suggests identifying intense physical sensations and making space for them. What a concept! These few lines in the workbook helped so much: “When you become aware of bodily sensations and feelings, tensions or other intense sensations in parts of your body, just notice them, acknowledge their presence, and see if you can make space for them. Don’t try to hold on to them or make them go away. Open your heart. Make some room for the discomfort…”

During the Acceptance of Thoughts and Feelings exercise, I would allow myself to think about Tabitha. I consciously chose to watch the way my thoughts intensified my anger. Then, I would label the thoughts as “judgmental” or “my story line” and focus on the physical feelings. I felt the surge of anger and accompanying adrenaline in my hands and fingers. It was helpful to just let that uncomfortable sensation be there, label it as anger, and breathe with it.  I even visualized my breath moving in and out of my hands since the physical sensation of anger was most intense in that area of my body. Often, my level of anger dropped within a couple of minutes when I was willing to just allow it, breathe with it, and open up around it without the story line.

Loving Kindness or Open Your Heart

Loving Kindness is a type of Buddhist meditation practice. Chodron, in her book, The Places that Scare You, writes that loving-kindness practice begins with training to be honest, loving, and compassionate with ourselves first. Next, we expand the practice to extend love and good wishes to friends, those who hurt or irritate us, and the world at large. I found this practice incredibly helpful. In my loving kindness meditations, I sent love to myself and then to Tabitha. I visualized Tabitha finding peace and healing. We had hurt each other so much but I could still choose to care for Tabitha from a distance. This soothed my fear of being a cruel and failed friend and allowed some increased acceptance of the distance that was now between us. For at least a period of time, Tabitha and I couldn’t be in each other’s lives, but I could still focus on her well-being.

After several years, Tabitha initiated repair. We both made amends and took responsibility for our part. It feels good to have that rupture finally resolved, In the years when it was unresolved, I’m grateful for the tools I had to accept my pain and discomfort and find some relief from my emotional reactivity.

Please see the links below for a list of resources that I find helpful when emotional reactivity is high. I hope they will be helpful to you. I will leave you now with the loving kindness phrases I’ve learned to use after training in Mindful Self-Compassion practice.

May you accept yourself as you are. May you feel loved. May you live in Peace.

Resources

Books

The Mindfulness and Acceptance Workbook for Anxiety by John P. Forsyth and Georg H. Efeirt

The Places That Scare You by Pema Chodron

Living Beautifully with Uncertainty and Change by Pema Chodron

Guided Mindfulness Based Self-Compassion

http://www.selfcompassion.org  – Click on resources, guided meditations

Soften, Soothe, Allow Working with Emotions in the Body – free guided audio by Kristin Neff (see link above).

Self-compassion/Loving Kindness Meditation – free guided audio by Kristin Neff (see link above).

3 thoughts on “Working with Difficult Emotions”

  1. Holly says:

    Very nice, Ann! Thank you!

  2. Jim Brown says:

    I really like the part about letting go of control…so hard! Thanks for the excellent post!

  3. Beautifully written and insightful. Thanks also for putting the resources at the end.

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