This is the title of a self-help classic I read in 1987, when it first came out. I don’t remember much about the book, but the title stuck with me because it’s such a useful concept.
Now I’m reading a helpful book called The Mindful Path to Self-Compassion by Christopher G. Germer that, at least what I’ve read so far, puts a yoga-esque, Buddhist-ish, new millennium-like spin on a similar concept.
The gist of both books is to feel what you feel. You can’t run or hide from emotions and so you might as well just have them. Accept them. Let them course through your body. And don’t hate them. Emotions aren’t bad or good. They just are. They might be comfortable and uncomfortable, but being uncomfortable never killed anyone.
If you practice yoga, you are probably familiar with half pigeon pose. This pose is designed to open the hips, which tend to be very tight on all of us. And boy howdy, this pose is simple, but it’s sure not easy. I would say that it hurts, but yoga isn’t supposed to hurt so I won’t say that it hurts.
At the advice of my yoga teacher, I have tried to stop thinking in terms of pain and to start thinking in terms of experience. Instead of thinking ouch I try to think what is my body experiencing? (Pain…wait…no.)
In yoga, and in this mindful path book, you learn to breathe into tension and pain (wait…no…). You don’t fight it. In yoga, fighting against not-pain causes muscles to tense, which only makes the not-pain not better. (And I am not talking about dangerous, you’re-about-to-do-yourself-damage pain. I am talking about muscles that need some persuading to unclench.) So instead, you use each breath to help your muscles let go.
The same holds true for emotions. The more you try to push them away, the harder they push back. And then, what could be passing discomfort becomes an epic, endless battle between your thinking mind and your emotions.*
Trying to stifle emotions traps you in statis.
In yoga, when I stop fighting a pose and allow myself to just breathe and feel, my muscles eventually relax. In my emotional life, when I feel something churning, I try to sit quietly, name the emotion, and let it do what it must, tell me what it needs to. I find that my whole body relaxes when I simply let an emotion be, even if it’s an unpleasant emotion. And for some reason, negative emotions seems less threatening when I just let them be.
Feel the fear and do it anyway. Feel the sadness and let it run its course. Feel the anxiety and realize it won’t kill you.
That’s not pain you’re feeling. It’s just an experience.
* As a wise reader points out, just as you need the guidance of a teacher to stay safe practicing yoga, you may need the guidance of a good therapist to help you sit with emotions that feel dangerous. Pop psychology is no substitute for professional help.
Photo of pensive woman is available at Shutterstock.
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Last reviewed: 2 Nov 2012