“Don’t worry, be happy.”
“Big kids don’t cry.”
“Fake it until you make it.”
From a young age, we are taught to deal with our negative thoughts and emotions by quashing them or transforming them into something more positive. Unfortunately, much of this effort results in the avoidance of difficult feelings. When we try to avoid a natural part of the human condition (e.g., sadness, hurt, jealousy, anger etc.), it does not make these feelings go away. Instead, we miss the messages sent by the feeling and avoidance defines how we live our emotional lives.
What can we do instead? Let us teach our children to sit with the discomfort of negative feelings in order to listen to their important messages. Instead of changing their emotions, children then learn to change their relationship with their feelings. Here are eight techniques to do just that:
1. Imagine thoughts are like trains. Visualize these thoughts coming and going. When you have a negative thought or emotion, envision it coming through the station in your mind. As it stops, you may feel different sensations all over your body. Sometimes it feels uncomfortable, but just like the train, the thought will move on.
2. “Shake hands” with your thoughts. Imagine you are being introduced to a hundred people, each representing a thought, positive or negative. Each thought wants to tell you its name, but none of them want to stay very long. Imagine you are standing still, shaking hands with each of these people. Let them tell you their “name”, say, “Nice to meet you,” and allow them to walk on. If one thought keeps coming back for a handshake, tell him/her, “We will talk later, but I have to meet everyone else first.”
3. Set a timer. Negative thoughts and emotions often make us uncomfortable, but we can learn to tolerate their discomfort in short spurts. Set a timer for one minute and imagine you are holding a balloon with the thought or emotion in your hand. Look at it from all different angles and examine it closely.
4. Write it out. Express what you are feeling in a feelings journal.
5. Give your thoughts weight and dimension. Envision a negative thought is sitting in your hand. Experience the weight of it, how it feels, and how it looks. Does it bounce? How would it sound if you were to drop it? What color is it?
6. Give your thought a tiny voice. Imagine a feeling like sadness is a tiny creature with a very little voice trying to tell you something. You must be very, very quiet and listen to what it is saying and repeat it back to you.
7. Picture your thoughts like clouds. Some of your thoughts are thin and very high, some are dark, hang low, and sometimes rain on you. All of them are constantly moving. Identify which thoughts are dark and low, which are thin and high, and which are puffy and white.
8. Sit and breathe into the feeling. Close your eyes and explore the physical sensation of the feeling. If you find it in your chest, for example, breathe in and out of your chest.