Home » Blogs » Mindfulness and Psychotherapy » The Upside to Embracing Dark Emotions

The Upside to Embracing Dark Emotions

embrace emotionIf there are two things we can count on in life besides death and taxes, it’s stress and pain. Stress and pain often manifest as difficult emotions such as sadness, anger, fear, shame, and guilt, among others. When these emotions come up the brain says, “Yikes, how do we fix this” and looks to the past to anticipate the future. Jerry Duvinsky, Ph.D is a Psychologist who wrote a recent book called How To Lose Control And Gain Emotional Freedom: Embracing the “Dark” Emotions Through Integrative Mindful Exposure, based on how to work with these challenging feelings that visit us day in and day out.

In the book he says:

It has been said, “The role of a therapy is not to make people feel better, but to help people better feel.”

What a beautiful representation of what a growing number of clinicians are recognizing about the role of therapy. It comes as quite a revelation, and often one difficult to accept, to contemplate the reality that emotions, no matter how painful and powerful, whether they be grief, anger, despair, helplessness, or loneliness, are not inherently bad, evil, dangerous, or wrong. Certainly, they can be uncomfortable, powerful, and at times rather inconvenient. But in fact, it is our conditioned fear and shame that teach us that these emotions are dangerous and in all ways “bad” and that therefore, they are in need of control. But in fact, it is our learned attempts to control our “dangerous” emotions that produce much deeper and more insidious problems. We spend so much of our time and energy running from painful feelings and experiences.”

He’s exactly right. It’s the brain’s embedded programming that in the face of discomfort, snaps in the direction of avoidance which can ultimately keep the difficulty around or exacerbate it. No one ever heals their fear of heights or snakes without at some point confronting them. So it is with the difficulties we have in life, but the question is how do we do this?

In a recent blog post, Duvinsky offered a mindfulness technique called “emotional surfing:”

The key elements of emotional surfing are fourfold:

1) Focus upon and hold a painful image, memory, thought or feeling.

2) Label as specifically as possible the feeling(s) that arise.

3) Take note and hold your attention at the physical body area from where the present feelings emanate.

4) Pay careful attention to how the emotions, images, and physical sensations change and move as you maintain focus.

Caution – Not everyone can do this on their own. Some may require the perceived safety and support of doing this in a therapeutic context. If one has a history of psychotic symptoms or has difficulty at times differentiating their internal reality, from external reality, than guidance and supervision may be advisable.

With this technique, we ask people to dip their toes in the emotion. Like Duvinsky said, you may want to get additional support, but if you feel safe, try it out with smaller emotions – like annoyances, frustrations, boredom, or low level stress. The idea is to give your brain the experience of exposure to the feeling. But we don’t just want blank exposure; it’s best if we can tinge it with a flavor that breathes kindness, warmth and compassion – the kind of attention we might give to a child in pain.

The brain needs to learn that you can approach what’s difficult with care, and that things will be okay.

In time, this lays the path to greater emotional freedom and a wiser heart.

As always, please share your thoughts, stories and questions below. Your interaction creates a living wisdom for us all to benefit from.

Man thinking photo available from Shutterstock

The Upside to Embracing Dark Emotions

Elisha Goldstein, Ph.D.

Elisha Goldstein, Ph.D. is creator of the six month online program A Course in Mindful Living, author of the book Uncovering Happiness: Overcoming Depression with Mindfulness and Self-Compassion, The Now Effect, co-author of A Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Workbook, Foreword by Jon Kabat-Zinn, author of Mindfulness Meditations for the Anxious Traveler: Quick Exercises to Calm Your Mind, the premier eCourse Basics of Mindfulness Meditation: A 28 Day Program, the Mindful Solutions audio series, and the Mindfulness at Work™ program currently being adopted in multiple multinational corporations. Join The Now Effect Community for free Daily Now Moments and a Weekly Newsletter. Dr. Goldstein is a clinical psychologist in private practice in West Los Angeles.

14 comments: View Comments / Leave a Comment



APA Reference
Goldstein, E. (2012). The Upside to Embracing Dark Emotions. Psych Central. Retrieved on May 25, 2019, from


Last updated: 30 Sep 2012
Statement of review: Psych Central does not review the content that appears in our blog network ( prior to publication. All opinions expressed herein are exclusively those of the author alone, and do not reflect the views of the editorial staff or management of Psych Central. Published on All rights reserved.