The elusive key to emotional mastery: Is it really that simple?
Let me steal and retell a little story from one of my favourite authors.
Two ducks float peacefully along in their pond; suddenly one crosses too far into the other duck’s territory. A fight starts – fast and furious. It lasts for only for a few seconds before just as suddenly they float off in their respective directions. As they do so, they flap their wings furiously, and then they return to their peaceful floating as if the fight never happened.
Such wisdom in the little creatures! How do they return to a peaceful life immediately after the fight? Why don’t they suffer afterwards, like most humans do? Why don’t they have any “wounds to lick”? It’s simple. When they flap their wings, they work off the energy and emotions they’ve built up in the fight – they purge it fully, they feel it fully, so it doesn’t snarl up in their system.
Why do humans, for all our supposed sophistication, not follow this simple pearl of wisdom from nature? We suffer throughout life and we build up so much energy and emotions. Fresh emotions are healthy, if fully felt and properly expressed. But many of us don’t purge them, and like physical wounds they never get a chance to heal. They get infected, like a cut on your body, and begin to rot.
Do you have these rotting wounds inside you? It is nearly impossible not to. How many of us are allowed to fully feel our emotions? And the wounds that you have suffered fights and arguments are only one of the many injuries possible. You can probably think of the other instances in your own life. And you’re already unhappy about them. Isn’t that purging, you might think? No. There’s a good chance you are repressing it. There are many forms of repression and denial, including some very subtle ones that we don’t know we are doing. And it all combines to kill us slowly from the inside. That’s why you need this post.
While a massively long one at 4200 words, this post covers in detail the mastery of your emotions – how to face insecurity, sadness, fear, doubt, anger, and all the other emotions. It will also cover how to purge the built up energies, and the most common forms of repression and denial. Imagine mastering your negative emotions, ranging from insecurity and doubt to rage, ever again!
I wish I could split it up into something shorter, but it has to be read in one go, or you might begin practice without a few vital ingredients. The other posts in this series will be more digestible, trust me! This series also rounds up and updates my previous articles in this category, and is a response to the many reader emails who asked about their obstacles and about the other emotions.
A side-note for the curious: the duck story is from one of the most powerfully transformative books in my collection – the highly recommended The Power of Now.
What can we truly feel?
What feelings can we fully enter and therefore purge? I would say just about everything ranging from the sting of an insult to stress, broken hearts, doubt, anxiety, insecurity, fear, grief, anger and guilt. Ive had a few emails about these emotions, but I have not covered them in detail because my own experiences with those were more of the everyday variety. I’ll go into these emotions a bit later in the post.
My own struggles were with overwhelming grief and anger the two sides of the coin that is depression. I’ll use these two emotions from now on as examples, but youre welcome to try it on the others. Simply replace the word anger or grief with the emotion that corresponds to your emotion – it should still apply.
If you do, please exercise common sense and be warned that I have not had any solid experience in the other types. Also, I am not a substitute for a trained professional if you need serious help, please find one. I cannot be held responsible in any way for anything that happens. Lastly, many emotional issues can cause physical responses – dizziness, pounding hearts, tingling, the list goes on. If you have serious physical responses, please consider seeing a family doctor before confronting your emotions. Stop immediately if anything gets too uncomfortable if the emotion stems from some sort of trauma, it might open up things that would be hard to handle alone.
Got all that? Great! Let’s get right into it.
Over-emphasis and under-emphasis on emotions
What are some of the most common problems that people make in dealing with their emotions? They put either too much or too little emphasis on their emotions.
While this is not a post on how much you should listen to your emotions in making decisions in everyday life, let’s go into it a little bit. Too much emphasis on your emotions solidifies them. If you are angry, and you act on it too much, you are strengthening your anger and making it worse. I could be wrong, but the only time you want to act out your anger (in a safe way) is when it’s been repressed for too long.
Same thing with any other emotion take fear for example. If you are scared of something, acting out your fear by screaming and crying every time you come across it simply makes it stronger.
Too little emphasis, on the other hand, often leads to repression. At best, you become an emotionless zombie – you can’t feel anything, for cutting off the bad emotions also leads to you not being able to feel the good. You lose touch with an important part of yourself. The worst case scenario? It piles up and you explode.
What is true feeling?
Which returns us to our original question: What is true feeling? It’s just a name I made up to describe letting yourself feel all your emotions totally even the ones that you have judged as bad and painful. Don’t deny any of them, but don’t act on them. Feel it directly, not through the filter of your mind. If your emotions are fresh, this prevents them from getting caught up in you. If your emotions are stuck in you, this purges them from your system.
We’ll discuss how to do that later, but the last paragraph deserves more explanation. Many your emotions make your body want to do things. Some anger can even make you feel like murdering someone. This often leads to the person denying it or pushing it down. But feeling it does not mean letting your body do what it wants.
It is your mind, your ego, that makes you feel like killing someone. By feeling it directly, you bypass the mind, and therefore these urges don’t have a hold on you. Does that make sense? A feeling is just a feeling, and that’s safe – acting on your feelings is your mind, and that’s not always safe. This is vital, please do not act on your feelings. More on this later.
This is also what I meant in the section above – if you act on your emotions you simply make them stronger. Crying and trying to run away when you are faced with a spider that you are scared of, simply trains you to be even more scared.
Conscious suffering The most important factor in purging
Before I describe the purging process, I have to talk about the most important element in purging. It is vital that you keep this in mind throughout the process, or you will have suffered in vain.
What is this element? Consciousness. Awareness. What does that mean? It means knowing what you are going through. Remembering and recognising your core being. Knowing the emotion isn’t you, knowing that it merely covers your core being, and recognising it for what it truly is.
“Of course I know I am angry!” I hear you say. Yes, but there is a vital and very subtle distinction. You don’t know what it is. You think it is you you have identified yourself with it. You think you are afraid; you think you are angry, stressed, or hurt.
But you are not. You have fear, anger, or stress inside you. It covers your true being. But you are not angry; or maybe it would be more accurate to say that you are not anger. As you work through the rest of the process, you always have to keep this recognition that it is not you and merely something inside you.
Using anger as an example: if you feel it as – “I want to SCREAM! I want to curl up and cry! I want to hit someone!” then you have identified with your emotions and your mind. You are angry; and it tempts you to actually go out and hit someone. Hopefully you don’t need me to tell you this is wrong.
What should you do instead? Feel it as “Hmm, so this is making my heart beat faster and my chest heat up. So it is making me feel like punching something. Oh, it’s getting worse now, now it makes me want to stab someone.” Treat it more as a clinical experiment, and you are a curious observer. Now you are not angry; now there is anger in you. In that way, you can choose not to react to it, and you are also feeling it directly.
I cannot understate this enough, and it’s hard to explain. Please leave a comment if you don’t understand this distinction.
Without this awareness, you are merely indulging in your negativity and making them worse.
Example of awakening consciousness
I’m running the risk of over-writing this, but this is really that vital. Let’s go into a personal example – I’ve been told these are the easiest to understand.
I used to suffer from rage. When it took over, it was like Jekyll and Hyde; I became an extremely vile and verbally abusive man. I didn’t know what I was doing; I just did it. Or rather, the anger did it through me. I had become the anger. I knew I was angry, and I thought it was perfectly normal. But was that consciousness? No. Was that fully feeling my emotions? No. It was in control, not me.
The beautiful awakening of consciousness took place during a particularly nasty break-up with a girlfriend. I was shouting on the phone, calling her the rudest names I could think of. She hung up on me. I got even angrier, and rang her again to abuse her even more – and then I suddenly realised – “What am I doing? Why am I behaving this way? This is not me. This vile, abusive, being – this is not me!”
Unfortunately, at that point, my consciousness was tiny. It was only a small glimmer of light in the darkness of my anger and depression. It wasn’t enough to stop the anger and abuse. But throughout the rest of the evening as I raged on, there was something in me that was watching my actions, completely horrified. It was like watching myself in a movie a terrible movie I wanted to influence, but could not. This consciousness was the real me my core being, watching the anger as it acted through me.
Does this explain the difference between feeling your emotions and acting them out? I was lucky verbal abuse was as far as it got.
However, that little awakening was also enough for me to realise there was something wrong, and as I searched my soul the consciousness slowly grew until I finally fixed these emotional issues.
The shift of consciousness
So: the rise of consciousness is the point where you shift from “I am angry” to “There is anger in me.” What you are cannot be dealt with. You can’t change the fact that you are angry; in the same way you cannot change the fact that you are a human being.
On the other hand, something inside you can be dealt with. If there is anger in you, it can be changed. It is a mere wound, and wounds can be cleaned and bandaged. This realisation is the consciousness we’ve been talking about. It is the realisation of your core being of peace and bliss. No longer are you the anger or fear or guilt, but you are the peace that has been obscured by them. The more conscious you are, the less these emotions will obscure your true self.
Maintaining consciousness can be hard. When the emotions get overwhelming or scary, they obscure your realisation and you forget that you are not your emotions!
Does that make sense? For more on consciousness, your core being of peace and how it has been obscured, please read Urban Monk dot Net’s flagship content – the original ego post. Now, if you’re wondering how this article ties in with that, it is the same thing. Just like our thoughts, we should ideally let our emotions float by our consciousness. Magnifying them, acting on them too much, repressing or denying them – these are all forms of our “magnifying glass” which keeps our emotions stuck inside us. Fully feeling them lets them slide off our consciousness – they come in, we feel upset or scared or whatever, and then they slide off again. That way, they will not get snarled up inside your system.
The purging process
So now we’ve established that consciously feeling our emotions is the key to purging them or letting them slide off. But what are the steps? Firstly, find somewhere you can be alone and safe; a little sanctuary. Some might prefer being with a loved one, but it is hard to purge yourself and worry about how they would react. Sometimes their reactions or your fear of their reactions holds you back in the process.
Note: Nothing on this blog is a substitute for the care of a qualified mental health professional. If you suffer from a mental disorder, or are a victim of trauma or abuse, please consult your provider first!
Step One: Turning off your mind
We’ve talked about feeling your emotions directly. This means not filtering them through your thoughts and your mind. Your mind is what covers your consciousness. It distorts the emotions, and the emotions distort your thoughts in return. It starts a vicious cycle which only stops when you are exhausted, or when you awaken. And most dangerously, keeping your mind active makes you want to act on your physical urges.
How do we turn off the mind? Just stop thinking. If you have trouble with that, here’s a technique from meditation. Watch your breath. Take a breath right now. Nothing special, but the difference is this time, feel it completely. Feel the air as it goes into your nose. Is it cool, is it hot? Feel it as it goes down your throat. It will be a deep breath naturally if you follow this process. Follow this process – you might notice areas of tension in your body. Relax them and keep breathing. Feel it as it goes into your belly and feel it as it leaves your body.
You cannot focus on more than one thing at a time. If you focus on your breath, you are not focusing on your thoughts. Take as long as you need to still your thoughts, it might be hard initially.
If you are having trouble with this, I described the process in detail in my meditation article.
Step Two: Feeling
Now, with your mind off, you can access your emotions directly.
Feel your emotions now. What do they feel like?
Here are some questions to further guide you in your feeling. What does your emotion feel like? When I had anger, it felt like a heaviness, a darkness, around my forehead and throat. There was a sharp heat in my heart area and my stomach tightened.
What about other emotions? When I was anxious and self-doubting, I felt slightly feverish. The skin on my neck was standing up and I felt cold. These sensations intensified the deeper I got into it. I felt queasy, and for a lack of a better description, I wanted to throw up, but with my whole being instead of my digestive system only.
I wont lie to you – this is extremely uncomfortable. To face your demons and fears, your doubt and anger, takes courage. But it is nothing that you – your core being cannot handle. Trust me on this one – despite how you might feel during the process.
Here’s a list of other emotions that you might feel:
– Difficulty concentrating / Thoughts racing
– Dizzy or light-headed
– Dry mouth
– Tension in neck, shoulders, chest, belly.
– Pounding heart
– Cold sweat
– Butterflies in stomach
– Trembling hands, sweaty palms
– Wobbly legs
Be careful that youre not looking at your emotions and thinking come on, come on, Im letting you be, now go away! That is just a more subtle form of denying your feelings. If you’re asking yourself how long it’s going to take, you are already denying it.
Step Three: Going deeper
This step is optional. Some forms of meditation simply recommend staying at step two, and letting it all bubble naturally to the surface. It is up to you. Step three might get uncomfortable, so you might just stay at step two if you can’t handle it. Again, stop at any stage if it gets too much to handle.
Go deeper into your feelings. Does it get stronger as time goes on? It often does. Like a wave, it goes higher and higher before it dies out. Sometimes it rises and falls. Don’t be afraid. If it is too uncomfortable, you can always stop.
Go deeper. Feel them more. Imagine yourself dragging them out even more. Keep feeling them. Let them be. Dont tell yourself it will go away soon – that is a form of denial. Let it take as long as it wants.
If you need more guidance, here are some more questions Can you draw them? Do they have colours? I remember when I first saw my therapist about my depression and anger she asked me to draw my feelings on a piece of paper with crayons. Don’t worry if they are right or wrong. There is no wrong drawing.
Mine was grey all over my upper body, black in my head, and a red circle over my chest area. I wondered what the point of the whole exercise was until I realised months later that in asking me to draw my emotions, she had sped up my disconnection from them. So, don’t worry about drawing it wrongly, it’s just a process.
Exercise caution and common sense. If it feels too uncomfortable, back off a little. Think of it as a huge tank of water. You’re pouring it down a small sink. Pour too much and the sink overflows. Pour it in and let it drain at comfortable rate.
Now another important factor we have to discuss is your physical urges, once again. When you feel your emotions directly, your body sometimes wants to react.
You can feel your emotions completely without acting on them. You can enter even the feelings that inspire crazy, almost irrepressible urges without acting on them.
But sometimes, you don’t have to stop yourself. Use your common sense here if your emotions tell you to cry, or curl up in your bed, or hide in a corner, there is no harm. Do it. If you want to yell, make sure you don’t frighten anyone.
On the other hand, other people have more dangerous and unhealthy urges. I hope you don’t need me to say: Don’t act them out.
A friend of mine that I recently coached through purging anger kept telling me he wanted to hit someone. This made him reluctant to fully enter it, for he was afraid his urges might get stronger until he acted on them. This urge is a mental habit – whether it was ingrained by his past, by television, by his parents, or by genetics, I don’t know. It was also compounded by his repression of the anger. (If you’ve read the ego post, those were his blotches in his ego.)
I urged him not to act on it, but to continue feeling it and going as deep as he could. I didn’t go into step 4, though, as he already wanted to hit someone – this is where common sense comes into play. He began shaking and crying, and I let him do that. After a while he said he was still unhappy, but it was different. It was less intense and felt “looser”. A few days later I asked him how his anger was going. He said it was just mild frustration and things don’t really set him off any more.
I asked him to rate his anger from a scale of 1 to 10, 10 being murderous rage. It had gone from an 8 to a 3 in the space of a few days. He had purged a portion of his snarled up anger, and more importantly he had awakened a small light of awareness – he wasn’t completely free, but it was the beginning.
My point is: You can enter your feelings fully without acting them out, so don’t act them out if they are anything hurtful or unhealthy. You only want to act them out because of your habits and past conditioning. But at the same time, don’t deny any of them – even the ones that make you feel like murdering someone. You can feel them without acting them out, so don’t censor yourself or make yourself wrong.
Conflict in the psychological community
Let’s change topic for a little bit and discuss catharsis. Catharsis refers to overacting physical expressions of your emotions to purge them. This is cause of much debate in the psychological community. Much of it revolves around anger, so if your concern is not anger, you can skip this section.
Some texts support releasing your anger safely, like shouting into the driving wheel in your car, or bashing a pillow. I covered these techniques in repressed anger.
On the other hand, there has been much research stating that catharsis for anger simply trains you for more anger. I covered this above. What do they suggest, then? I covered some of that in fresh anger.
Where do I stand on this? Somewhere in the middle. Anti-catharsis research seems to deal with fresh anger. If your anger is recent or fresh, then I agree that acting it out does make it worse. For fresh anger then, I begin watching my breath to turn off my thoughts, as described above and in the fresh anger article.
On the other hand, extremely repressed anger needs to be given a voice. When I saw my therapist for my anger and depression, she was shocked to see how much anger I had, and how deeply I had pushed them down. She encouraged me to express them in safe way. Many anger books I’ve read since then support this.
Many of my emotional wounds had been in me for years, and I had always pretended that they didn’t exist. When I finally gave my wounds a voice, when I pretended the people who hurt me could hear me and screamed out all I wanted to say, it purged my anger. I felt so much better. It took a few weeks, but soon they were gone.
When I discovered the “actionless” purging described in this article, I had no anger left to experiment on. It worked wonders on other emotions, like pain, though. It worked wonders for many fellow seekers and people I have coached, such as the friend who wanted to hit someone – I described him above. So, I recommend trying that first, even for your repressed anger. If you feel you need to, then try catharsis, but be aware that it is only for repressed anger.
This should be enough for you to go on. The next in this series shall cover the common obstacles and dangers, loving your emotions, and examples on how to deal with smaller emotions.
Please leave a comment if you don’t understand anything. I was thinking about packaging this series with a few other articles into a comprehensive ebook for sale. After days of deliberation, I decided that it was so important that I can’t deny anybody for a lack of money. Sigh. If this post or the rest of the series helped, please leave a donation and consider it as buying an ebook.
Ive had a few people ask what to do with fresh emotions. Its the same, you follow this process without external action. Feeling it completely lets it slide past you. Of course, it might be a bit hard to do when youre in the actual situation your mind is working, you want to react, and so on. Please use common sense here maybe you can remove yourself from the situation, or tell the other person that you need some time to compose yourself. The way this article was written, you might get the impression that this is something you only can do with older pain. It works for both.
As always, I would love to hear your personal feedback and how well this has worked for you.