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Mindful Mondays: Working with difficult emotions

Soften, Sooth, Allow

This weekend on my way to fetch eggs from a local family farm, I stumbled upon the ruins of a former mental health hospital.  Northern State Mental Hospital was closed in 1976 after reigning since 1912.  It left in its wake some successes I’m sure, but it is where many practices and treatments were delivered that would be seen as barbaric by today’s standards.

I stopped by the cemetery on the premises where 1,487 souls were buried unceremoniously, their small markers engraved with mere numbers and letter abbreviations to save families from the shame of having a relative associated with the facility.

Thankfully, we have improved treatments for the severely ill and have an abundance of options for all the rest of us who are on the spectrum of mental wellness.

Dealing with the depression of various seasons and situations in our life, for example, no longer beats a path to a mental institute.  We now have more awareness of our capacity for the self-care needed to tend to our harder emotions and mental health in general.

As sentient beings we will encounter difficult emotions. It is part of the full spectrum of being alive! Strong feelings like anger, confusion, fear, loneliness, even joy amid chaos and disaster can feel awkward or difficult. A deep blue velvet funk of any kind can be reconciled.

The best strategy I’ve found to attend to these emotions is a process developed by Kristin Neff and Chris Germer, experts in Mindfulness, Compassion, and well-being. The simplicity of Soften, Sooth, Allow, is a life changer. Give it a try!

  1. Beginning with Breath and Kindness Find a comfortable position, close your eyes, and take three relaxing breaths. Place your hand on your heart for a few moments to remind yourself that you are in the room, and to bring kindness to yourself.
  2. Labeling the Emotion Let yourself recall a mild-moderately difficult situation that you are in right now, perhaps a health problem, stress in a relationship, or a loved one in pain. Do not choose a very difficult problem, or a trivial problem—choose a problem that can generate a little stress in your body when you think of it. Now clearly visualize the situation. Who was there? What was said? What happened? Now see if you can name the strongest emotion—a difficult emotion—associated with that situation: anger? sadness? grief? confusion? fear? longing? despair? Repeat the name of the emotion to yourself in a gentle, understanding voice, as if you were validating for a friend what he/she is feeling: “That’s longing.” “That’s grief.”
  3. Bringing Mindfulness of Emotion into the Body Expand your awareness to your body as a whole. Recall the difficult situation again and scan your body for where you feel it the most. In your mind’s eye, sweep your body from head to toe, stopping where you can sense a little tension or discomfort. Now choose a single location in your body where the feeling expresses itself most strongly, perhaps as a point of muscle tension or an achy feeling, like a heartache. In your mind, incline gently toward that spot.
  4. Soften, Soothe, and Allow Soften into that location in your body. Let the muscles be soft without a requirement that they become soft, like simply applying heat to sore muscles. You can say, “soft…soft…soft…” quietly to yourself, to enhance the process. Remember that you are not trying to make the sensation go away—you are just being with it with loving awareness. You can let yourself just soften around the edges, like around the edges of a pancake. No need to go all the way in. Soothe yourself for struggling in this way. Put your hand over your heart and feel your body breathe. Perhaps kind words arise in our mind, such as, “Oh my dear, this is such a painful experience. I’m so sorry it’s so hard for you right now”. If you wish, you can also direct kindness to the part of your body that is under stress by placing your hand in that place. It may help to think of your body as if it were the body of a beloved child. You can say kind words to yourself, or just repeat, “soothe…soothe…soothe.” Allow the discomfort to be there. Abandon the wish for the feeling to disappear. Let the discomfort come and go as it pleases, like a guest in your own home. You can repeat, “allow…allow…allow.” “Soften, soothe and allow.” “Soften, soothe and allow.” You can use these three words like a mantra, reminding yourself to incline with tenderness toward your suffering. If you experience too much discomfort with an emotion, stay with your breath until you feel better.
  5. Easing back out… When you’re ready, slowly open your eyes, letting your attention move out into the world around you.

NOTE: If, at any point, you experience too much discomfort, become panicky or scared, stay with your breath until you feel better. If things are still too much, try opening your eyes, looking around the room to orient yourself, maybe looking at something that is comforting or soothing to you (a favorite piece of art or photo of a loved one or pet). You may even want to reach out to a friend, take a walk, have a cup of tea. Taking care of yourself, even if it means interrupting the process, is mindfulness in action.

Mindfulness is

“The awareness that arises through paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally.” ~Jon Kabat-Zinn

“Mindfulness is simply the knack of noticing without comment whatever is happening in your present experience” ~ Guy Claxton


Lisa Wellington
Lisa Wellington

Lisa Wellington is a Certified Mindfulness Teacher who writes about integrative practices that downshift stress, increase insight, and jumpstart joy.

She is best known for her work with law enforcement professionals as well as those challenged by housing instability and addiction. Trained in the Fine Arts at Washington State University, she specializes in group training that engages participants’ inherent creativity.

If she is not under a stack of books about psychology and spirituality, she can be found at a Puget Sound beach or nearby trail, always searching for the absurd, which is her superpower. 

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