Last week, I left the blog post with a question – how do you cope with uncomfortable feelings? This week’s post provides you with the answer - Expansion. What is expansion?
Expansion = Accepting our Emotions
The word expansion is just psychologist shorthand for ‘stop pushing away certain feelings’. People tend to judge emotions. We often think of emotions that make us feel pleasurable as good (e.g. love, joy) and ones that make us feel uncomfortable as bad (e.g. fear, anger). We try to increase the good feelings and avoid the bad, but it’s not really that simple.
E.g. Growing up in a family where people didn’t express love and affection means that some people find love uncomfortable, but that doesn’t mean these people should avoid love.
E.g. Challenging your limits by doing something that scares you will cause strong uncomfortable feelings. But avoiding these emotions would mean you never grow and improve.
With expansion, instead of trying to get more of some emotions and less of others, we just accept the emotions we are having, right now.
Why would we want to do that???
No matter what, we can’t control our emotions. We can bury them with drugs, distraction, worrying, fighting, bingeing, TV etc. but feelings keep coming regardless. Plus, burying feelings often has negative consequences for our lives. It costs time, money and energy to ignore feelings, and these could be used for other endeavours.
Sometimes avoiding emotions costs us something we’d really like. For example, you might like to ask an acquaintance on a date. But if you think you can’t stand the anxiety associated with the possibility of rejection, you won’t ask. As a result, you’ll never get the potential benefits that will come if you do date the person. In business, at work, with children, in relationships, we often give up on what we want because we don’t want the accompanying feelings that arise.
Emotions don’t last and they won’t kill you. So putting time, money, energy and effort into avoiding them is not the best use of these limited resources. Feelings can be sudden and intense, but they cannot be sustained for long of their own accord. When emotional states go on for a long period, it’s because they keep being triggered. Sometimes this is by repetitive environmental stimulation (e.g. your partner calls you cold-hearted on a regular basis). Usually, it’s because we ourselves keep triggering them (e.g. your partner called you cold-hearted once, and then you kept thinking about it for the next day, week, year).
As we can’t completely control our minds and environment, we can’t control when we will feel uncomfortable emotions. The best we can do is to stop fighting our feelings (which is a form of re-triggering them anyway and is costing you time, money and energy). Instead let them be whatever they will be and get on with the business of living your life. That is the practice of expansion.
Expansion in four steps.
These are simple, but not easy!
1. Observe. Stop trying to ignore the sensations in your body and observe. Pick the most dominant sensation and explore it, pay attention to it. What shape is it, where in your body is it, where is it most intense, where weakest, what colour would it be, how heavy/ light/soft/ hard is it, does it move or stay still. Observe how your mind might add thoughts to the feeling, thoughts like ‘I can’t do this’ or by remembering the event that triggered the emotion. Notice how that changes the emotion.
2. Breathe. Breathe into the sensation, to calm yourself.
3. Create space. Use your breathing to ‘open up a space’ around the feeling in your body, to give it edges around which your breathing flows (even if this starts off as the edges of your body).
4. Allow. Allow the sensation to be there. As your mind complains about this, thank your mind and continue to allow the feelings. Notice your urges to fight and change the feeling, but then bring your attention back to the feeling itself. It can help to say the following things to yourself when practicing expansion:
‘I don’t like this feeling, but I have room for it.’
‘It’s unpleasant, but I can accept it.’
‘I’m having the feeling of…’
‘I don’t like it, I don’t want it, I don’t approve of it. But right here and now I accept it.’
As you practice the above, you will likely notice the following things.
Feelings vary in intensity over time. They tend to reduce over time, unless they keep being triggered – by your thoughts or the situation.
You are with the feeling and you have not been destroyed.
My favourite analogy for expansion is riding a wave. The wave is your emotion. It is as pointless fighting the sea and trying to stop a wave as it is to try and stop an emotion. Take a deep breath and just go with it. Ride it as best you can.
Like all psychological techniques, it takes practice and it’s very difficult to implement it all the time. With practice it gets easier and you can process your feelings quicker, allowing you more freedom from feelings dictating your actions. So even if at the beginning, you only manage to feel a feeling for a few seconds before reverting to needing to leave a situation or distract yourself in some way, you are slowly making progress.
Lana Hall, Psychologist. Helping you to live your best life, using the power of psychology.