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Surfing the Tides of Emotion: Are You Willing to Get Wet?

04/29/2015 06:45 pm ET | Updated Jun 29, 2015

In my last blog, "4 Core Mind Habits," the influence our thinking has on our emotions was discussed, and some simple practices provided for wrangling your mind back to the present moment. But the relationship between thoughts and emotions is bidirectional. So when emotions are strong it can feel almost impossible to simply "redirect to the present moment." Our emotions are akin to the tide of the ocean, while our thoughts are just a tiny surfboard. Sometimes we can use the skill of our redirecting attention to surf the giant waves. But more often, when tides are high, our tiny surfboards are not enough to protect us. Sometimes, we have to be willing to get wet in order to surf well; we have to be willing to feel our emotions in order to be skillful.

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Willingness to get Wet
Willingness is one of the most powerful mindfulness skills for emotion regulation you can learn, and the most difficult. Willingness is the intentional practice of allowing yourself to feel your feelings, with non-reactivity. This means, not reacting harshly, or judgmentally to them, but instead allowing the wave to come and go naturally. This is really really difficult to do! The reason this is so difficult is because emotions do not only influence our thinking, but also have a powerful, evolutionarily driven, action tendency. Each emotion is hard wired to activate a particular behavior. The action tendency related to the emotion becomes reinforced by reducing the distress associated with the emotion. So developing the skill of non-reactivity takes a LOT of practice to override the auto-pilot!

Buying into Willingness
The non-reactivity of willingness improves our ability to listen to the wisdom in our emotions, while surfing the waves of life more skillfully! But we cannot force willingness, or try to be willing. Willingness is an all or none buy in. So it is important that you know from your own experience that fighting against the way you feel is ineffective. A great way to try this for yourself is to use physical feelings as a proxy for emotions. As you read these words, notice the feeling of your bottom in the chair. Got it? Good. It was there the whole time, but once I led you to be mindful of the physical sensations, you notice.

Now, try to un-notice the feeling of your bottom in the chair. Can you do it? Of course not! In fact, you might notice that the more you attempt to un-feel your bottom in the chair, the more you actually feel it! When you simply focus on directly changing the way you feel, you will find it is impossible and paradoxical. Of course, you may get creative here, as many do, and use distraction or thinking about something else to stop feeling your bottom in the chair. And this will work, for a while. But, recall from our last blog, over reliance on distraction and spacing out to reduce discomfort can lead to other difficulties.

Diving Into Willingness

So HOW can we master this paradox of emotion driven thinking and actions and practice willingness? Here are some simple steps for actively practicing this courageous and difficult work.

Step I: PAUSE: Label your emotion. Turning your attention inward, find the emotion word label for the emotion you are experiencing. This too may sound simple, but is not always easy. You may notice multiple emotions, but make sure you are using one single word to label your experience. Note, this is often a challenge when there is no strong emotion present. But as best you can, search inside yourself for any mood or emotion. More subtle emotions might be eagerness, boredom, or impatience. Say to yourself, "I am noticing the emotion of ___________." (sadness, fear, anxiety, anger, etc.) The ability to label one's emotions like this has been linked to neurological down regulation of the emotion system.

Step II: Validate your emotion. Emotions happen for a reason. Ask yourself the following questions. A. Would anyone feel similarly in this situation? B. Could there be a biological influence on my mood today? (e.g. Enough sleep? Fighting a cold? PMSing? Hungover? etc.) C. Is there something in my past that makes me more sensitive to this type of situation? Once you have identified the possible reasons your emotion makes sense, let go of judgments about how you feel. Be kind to yourself for feeling the way you do. Say to yourself, "It makes sense that I am having these feelings due to ___________________."

Once you have labeled the emotion as part of your experience, and validated that it makes sense, the next bold move is to step into willingness.

Step III: Willingness Hands. As you read these words, place both feet flat on the floor, while sitting up right. Next, extend both of your hands out, palms up, and slightly away from your body. Allow your shoulders to drop away from your ears. Extend your belly out. Notice how this feels. The Willingness Hands pose is a natural and neutral expression in the body. Recall that the messages between your mind and your body are bi-directional. This pose sends a clear message to your mind that you are open to your experience, as it is. The next step is getting your mind out of the way and onboard with willingness.

Step IV: Willingness Mantra. Now, as you maintain Willingness Hands in the body, recall the single word emotion label you identified above. Now, practice the following, while you maintain the Willingness Hands position. In your mind or aloud say; "I am willing to feel this feeling of ________, in just this moment." Say this three times, as best you can, with an attitude of non-judgmental and kind allowing of your experience.

PAUSE: Notice how you feel. Did your experience change? Stay the same? Get stronger or weaker? With practice we can learn that fighting the waves of emotion does not serve us and we are more able to mindfully choose the most effective responses to the tides of life.