All of our emotions, whether negative or positive, are welcome. We get into dicey territory when we try to avoid them or stuff them down or judge ourselves for having them (why are you upset about the world’s smallest thing?!).
The best thing we can do with our emotions is to process them. The best thing we can do is to name the feeling we’re feeling and then explore it.
We can get curious. And once we identify and explore, then we can attend to our needs (soothe ourselves, set a boundary, confront the conflict).
But this is hard. I know. It’s especially hard if we’re more accustomed to pretending emotions don’t exist — if we’ve had years and years of practice. It’s especially hard if we just don’t take the time to tune into ourselves.
This week I interviewed art therapist Lisa Mitchell, MFT, for a piece I’m writing on getting to know ourselves better. She shared an especially helpful exercise for processing our emotions.
It’s a creative, compassionate and accessible technique that helps us ease into understanding what we’re feeling.
She suggested reflecting on emotions using a verbal, physical and visual representation. Then once you reflect on your emotions, you can use these very representations to comfort yourself.
Specifically, this involves:
- communicating what you’re feeling (verbal).
- considering where this emotion shows up in your body (physical).
- considering what it looks like, such as the shapes or colors of this emotion (visual).
Lisa shared this example: A person experiences sadness after the loss of their father. They verbally express “I miss my dad. I don’t know what to do without him.”
They feel a heaviness and sharp pains in their heart. It looks hot, red and expanding.
This person then comforts themselves by saying: “It’s OK to feel this way. This speaks to the meaningful relationship we had.”
Next, they consider how they can cool off the heat or lighten the load inside their heart, she said. They may hold their hand over their heart, or draw a bucket to put out the flames, she said.
Depending on how you’re feeling, you can draw other images to soothe yourself. Lisa always asks her clients: “What could you do with that image that makes you feel a little less sad? What could you add to that image?”
This might be everything from a fluffy blanket to a warm cup of tea, which, again, is something you can draw.
Processing our emotions can feel intimidating, especially if we don’t have much practice. But there are many ways we can explore our emotions in compassionate and accessible ways (like Lisa’s exercise). Because exploring our emotions is really exploring ourselves. Because bringing compassion to our feelings is bringing compassion to ourselves.