Earlier this summer, I took a six-week workshop about dealing with emotions using (among other things) mindfulness and CBT strategies. Of the things I learned in the workshop, my favourite was that the word emotion comes from a Latin root that means to move through or to move out.
I love this! It reminds me that emotions are transient in nature, and that the way out is through (that is, that experiencing tough emotions makes them dissipate much more quickly than does avoiding them). But what's the best way to move through (and therefore, beyond) painful feelings?
There's an acronym that can be used to deal mindfully with uncomfortable emotions: RAIN. It's often taught in Buddhist meditation circles, but you definitely don't have to be Buddhist or even into Buddhism to use it. All you need is to be willing to try it, even when it's hard.
R is for Recognition, the first step to mindfulness in the midst of powerful or painful emotion. Recognition means that you take a second to acknowledge and label the emotion, asking yourself what exactly you're feeling and naming it (e.g., fear, guilt, anxiety, shame). Identifying and labeling emotions forces you to step outside the swirly vortex of feelings, at least briefly. It normalizes emotions and reduces their power.
A is for Acceptance, which means deciding that whatever you're feeling is okay. Give yourself permission to experience any emotion under the sun. You don't have to like the emotion or be happy that you feel that way, but you also don't need to judge yourself for it (creating secondary emotions). When you have a feeling that you find hard to accept (e.g., rage at a loved one), it can help to think of the emotion as your own secret. No one can see how you feel inside; you get to decide whether or not to act on it or express it, and if you don't, no one will ever know how you felt. The idea of your emotions as secret can help you accept them, whatever they are.
I is for Investigation. One way to be mindful with your emotions is to stop trying to think about what they might mean or how you can get rid of them and to instead explore how they feel in your body. In the investigation step, you adopt an attitude of curiosity about how the emotion manifests itself physically, what it feels like inside you. Ask yourself how you know you're feeling a particular emotion: what tells you that you're disappointed, anxious, or scared? Is your face cold, are your limbs prickly, or your belly made of lead? All emotions have some kind of physical manifestation and bringing your attention to it forces you out of your head, away from avoidance, and into the present experience.
N is for Non-identification. This means remembering that the definition of emotion involves movement, and adopting a "this too shall pass" attitude. It means creating some space around the emotion, rather than being one with it. Think of it as a visitor who dropped by. You can open the door and let it in, and acknowledge that it's present. You can even sit in in the living room and serve it tea, but you don't have to identify with it or get tangled up in it. The emotion isn't who or what you are.
The next time you feel your emotions taking over, try letting it RAIN!