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Getting Better at Feeling to Feel Better (for the Long-Term)

Last week Jane came into my office feeling paralyzed and confused.

“When my anxiety starts up I try to use my skills to validate my emotions. But then my mind starts finding all the real things I have to feel anxious about! So how do I know when to listen to my emotions?”

Jane’s question is important, because finding the needed balance between accepting and changing our emotions can be a very subtle, nuanced endeavor.

Finding the Balance

The skill of regulating emotions is balancing feeling better, with getting better at feeling.

Feeling Better: Most of us get caught in our feel better auto-pilot habits, which reduce the short-term discomfort, but take us off track towards our long-term goals.

Too much emphasis on this side of the balance often leads to paradoxical backlash. Like trying to hold multiple beach balls under the surface of the water, the chase becomes exhausting!

Getting better at feeling. On the other hand allowing our emotions (beach balls) to be present, without clinging or pushing them away, is sometimes the more effective thing to do. The skill is practicing Willingness, while listening to the messages of our emotions. This side of the balance is essential for two reasons.

Without willingness:

  1. Our life becomes organized around what we don’t want, rather than what we do want (i.e. our goals and values).
  2. We will be deaf to the messages of our emotions, which is where important information about what we care about comes from.

But too much emphasis on this side of the balance can get us caught in the spiral of intense, unhelpful secondary emotions.

Holding Center: Balancing Acceptance with Change

Mindfulness practices help us build psychological flexibility: the skill of moving between acceptance and change. The practice is both leaning into, listening, and allowing our vulnerable emotional experience AND disciplining ourselves to shift attention back to the present moment.

Like balancing a surfboard on a bowling ball, the skill of moving in and moving out requires a fair amount of practice. But just as you would not want to learn how to surf in high tide, it is best to create practice conditions, to build some mastery first.

The Practice: Bringing to Mind the Difficult

To begin building this skill in a manageable way, you can practice in the virtual reality of your imagination. These steps will guide you in HOW to balance holding both acceptance and change and build your psychological flexibility in coping with triggering situations.

Step 1: Bring to mind the difficult: Allow an image of something mild to moderately upsetting to come to mind. Think of the who, what, where, and how. Really let your emotional reaction to the event bubble up.

Step 2: Label and connect to the feelings: Label the exact emotion/s (Remember, emotions are a one-word answer, such as sad, angry, anxious). You may practice using the Dashboard form to structure this in your mind.

Step 3: Lean In: Observe the feelings (physical and emotional) as they come up in a kind and loving way. Perhaps saying to yourself, “there you are, I see you.” Allow yourself to really feel the pull of the emotion bubble up.

Step 4: Redirect and Anchor in the present moment: Once you have really connected to the feelings, take a deep belly breath, and move your attention to the physical sensations of breathing. You may also use the “I am inhaling with awareness, exhaling with acceptance” mantra to re-establish an anchor.

Step 5: Repeat

You may begin this practice with very short periods of entering in and moving out of the difficult thoughts, and then extending the time somewhat. Remember not to over control your emotion by anchoring, nor over indulge in getting pulled in. The skill is built by the subtle shifting from one mode to the other.

When to Listen

Jane’s frustration and uncertainty is understandable. There is no perfect dosage for how much of acceptance versus change is needed. But a good barometer is to ask yourself, “Is this feeling familiar?” In other words, could this be some old passenger programming, which is being added to the current facts of the situation?

Ultimately, your task is much like that of a loving parent. That is to attend to your internal experience with loving kindness, while still practicing the discipline you need to not get overwhelmed and move forward.

The dosage balance will always depend on what works for you to move towards your goals and values. Sometimes that will mean more acceptance, sometimes more change.

Holding the balance is in the service of coping as effectively as possible with the inevitable triggers you will encounter in life. Being skillful comes with repeated acts of willingness to accept that you are human, while challenging yourself to respond differently to your programming.

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Getting Better at Feeling to Feel Better (for the Long-Term)

Dr. Fielding

Lara Fielding is a licensed Clinical Psychologist, who teaches, supervises, and specializes in the Mindfulness-based Cognitive Behavioral Therapies (CBT). Her private practice is in Los Angeles, where she is also an adjunct professor at Pepperdine University, Graduate School of Education and Psychology, and a Supervisor Psychologist at the UCLA Department of Psychology Clinic. Dr. Fielding teaches clients how to master the auto-pilot tendencies of the mind-body emotional system with mindfulness and self-care skills. As a behavioral psychologist, she works with clients to empower their skillfulness in managing stress and regulating difficult emotions. The skills she teaches are based on her research at UCLA, Harvard, and Peperdine, to incorporate the psycho-physiology of stress, emotion and cognition. Dr. Fielding has exhaustively studied the Mindfulness-Based CBT treatments (DBT, ACT, MBSR, MBCT) and their application for problems with Emotion Dysregulation. From this study, she derived a set of therapist guidelines for evidence-based practice. Dr. Fielding’s work is further informed by her research experience at UCLA and Harvard. Her research there explored the relationship between health behavior and the psycho-physiological effects of stress on cognition and emotion. Dr. Fielding is trained and experienced working with groups and individuals suffering from the effects of traumatic experiences, anxiety, and mood disorders. She has taught hundreds of clients concrete skills to better manage difficult emotions in the face of stressful life situations. With these cognitive and emotional skills in place, clients are guided towards personal values consistent behavioral change, in order to achieve their life goals.

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APA Reference
Fielding, L. (2016). Getting Better at Feeling to Feel Better (for the Long-Term). Psych Central. Retrieved on July 13, 2020, from


Last updated: 26 Feb 2016
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