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  • Writer's pictureKimberly Kono

How to Sit with Uncomfortable Emotions





One of the lessons I learned as a novice therapist was that not everyone knows how to identify or sit with their feelings.  In fact, periodically, I’ll meet with a client who says, “Why do we have emotions? They’re so inconvenient.” Typically, comments like these come after a period of experiencing uncomfortable emotions (which is often what brought them into therapy). While there are various reasons why people have difficulty naming and feeling their feelings (too much to go into here), comments like the above are understandable given that not all emotions are easy to tolerate. As humans, we are hardwired to avoid things that bring us discomfort or feel threatening. No one said sitting with our feelings was easy, but it is a skill that can be learned! 


Before we review tips to help you sit with your emotions, let’s talk about what it looks like when we don’t do the deed. 


I remember this day very vividly, because of the comical sequence of events that followed. Typically, I am not a morning person. You will never hear me getting excited about starting my day early, in fact, I try to extend my time in bed as long as possible by hitting the snooze button at least 5x (no joke). On this particular morning - like most mornings - I was running late for work and was feeling an emotional hangover from the day before when I was told about a family member’s health crisis (translation: I was already feeling hyperaroused and at the edge of my window of tolerance). Desperate to find my car keys, I hurriedly sifted through my bag and – because I am a multitasker – was holding my coffee cup in my hand while I was searching for my lost keys. You can guess what happened next; my coffee spilled all over my bag and down my white blouse. I grunted in frustration, changed my clothes, cleaned up the mess, found my car keys, and walked out the door. At this point, I was about 10 minutes late for work. I threw my bag into the car and while I was pulling out of the driveway, I managed to scrape the side of my car. 


(We’ll ignore the fact that I didn’t measure my car before purchasing it. Had I done so, I would’ve learned that I had only inches between my car and the side of my garage opening. Alas, I digress.) 


Now, fortunately, I didn’t have a client waiting for me and I had only planned on catching up on notes that morning (but still wanted to stick to my schedule). With a big gash on the side of my car and a slightly bruised ego, I decided to make a pit stop at the grocery store before heading to the office. I wanted carbohydrates. I wanted delicious, fatty, deep-fried goodness to console myself. Flustered, I rushed to the nearest grocery store and came across the last package of donut holes. Rejoice! Well, my saga didn’t stop there. Upon returning to my now dented car and desperate to feed my nerves, I ripped open the box of donut holes which proceeded to spill all over my clean shirt and the car. It was not my finest hour as I began scarfing down the donuts that hadn’t fallen out of the box (and maybe a few that were on the passenger seat). Ten minutes later, I arrived at the office and grabbed the biggest handful of trail mix that I could, laid down on the couch, and proceeded to watch YouTube videos for the next hour. While the food and mindless videos comforted me in the moment, they didn’t get rid of my feelings - they just numbed them. Looking back at it now, I can easily say that I was feeling an immense amount of anxiety about my family member’s health condition as well as frustration and shame (did I mention that my car was new?), however at the time all I knew was that I didn’t like the way I was feeling and needed to make myself feel better right away. 


Yes, even therapists are human and prone to cope with distress in unhelpful ways. Have you ever heard the phrase, “Do as I say, not as I do?” Yeah, that applies here. 


“What could [I] have done instead,” you ask? Here’s a list of tips to help you sit with uncomfortable emotions:


“Name it to tame it”

This is a phrase coined by the psychiatrist, author, and professor, Dr. Dan Siegel, who said that naming our emotions in the moment helps to calm down the emotional center of our brain (amygdala). (This is a very simplistic explanation; for more information, click here.)  In other words, by simply labeling our feelings, we engage the part of our brain (prefrontal cortex) that helps us to regulate our emotions. 


Breathe 

It sounds so simple and that’s because it is. It’s easy to underestimate the power of our breath and how it can help us regulate our emotions. Focusing on our breath can not only help decrease the tension in our bodies, but as we physically relax so does our mind. 


Ride the wave

During the peak of an uncomfortable emotion, it can be difficult to remember that the intensity of that feeling will eventually decrease with time. Just like a wave, feelings naturally rise and fall. When we try to control or resist the wave, it can sometimes make the waves bigger. Riding the wave means acknowledging the presence of an emotion and noticing it as it slowly changes in intensity over time; one way to do this is to notice changes in your body as you’re experiencing a feeling. It looks something like this:

What emotion are you experiencing? What kind of sensations do you feel in your body and where do you feel it? Do you feel more/less tense in some areas than others? Do some parts of your body feel hotter/colder? Do you feel tingly, heavy/light, etc.? Now, take a breath. Notice how as you breathe, these sensations may change or move. Just like the waves of the ocean or the sensations in our bodies, emotions are not static –they constantly change. 


Engage in different forms of expression

Express yourself in writing or through other creative modalities such as drawing, painting, or music. In this context, these are not meant to be used as forms of distraction but rather vehicles by which we can express and process how we feel. 


Be compassionate

Judging ourselves for having an emotion – particularly ones we categorize as “negative” – only makes us feel worse. Approaching ourselves with kindness, compassion, and curiosity reinforces that it’s OK to feel emotions and that we are not doing something wrong by feeling them. 


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