Have you ever tried to put out a fire by throwing wood at it? “But I’ve got to Do SOMETHING to stop the flame” you think. The thing is, fire only grows when you give it fuel. No fuel and the fire will eventually die down.
Welcome to another episode of Mindful Metaphors. Sometimes our difficult emotions can feel like a raging fire. Anger, anxiety, worry, fear; even sadness can get overwhelming and feel like a violent storm inside of us.
So when we notice these fires inside of us, what can we do to help? First, look at how you are adding to the fire. Here are some common ways we do that.
Self-criticism: “I shouldn’t be feeling this way – what’s wrong with me?” or “I should be more in control of myself!”
Attacking our feelings: “I hate the way I’m feeling – go away anxiety!”
Running from your feelings: “Quickly distract myself with (insert means of escape – TV, drugs, food, etc.)” or “Don’t let so-and-so know how you are feeling – hide those feelings!”
Now, all of these are a very common and human approach to dealing with your emotions. So give yourself a break if you know one or all of these is your strategy. In fact, give yourself a high-five for being able to recognize it!
And now ask yourself – do any of these strategies work? For the short term or for the long term?
If you honestly answer those questions, you’ll probably see that perhaps they do work in the short term. For like a few minutes. Or even a day or more if you’ve got your distraction down to a science.
But the problem is that in the long term your difficult feelings haven’t gone anywhere. In fact, you might be adding more fuel to the fire.
Do you think being angry at your anger will make it go away? Do you think worrying about your anxiety will make you calmer? Can you hide from your fear forever?
“OK OK I get it…what I’m doing isn’t helping. So what DO I DO?!?”
Have you ever heard that phrase “Don’t just sit there, Do Something!”? Well, when it comes to difficult emotions, sometimes the opposite is the best thing: “Don’t do something about it, Sit There.” And I would add – Breathe, notice, and give the feelings space to just be…
This is the secret of Allowing or Accepting. Some might call this Letting Go – meaning, letting go of trying to control your feelings.
And this takes Bravery – to be willing to fully experience what you are feeling. To allow the feelings to come and go. To just sit and watch the fire within slowly fade. You have to be willing to look at your fears.
Because here’s the thing about emotions – they want to be fully experienced. It is our humanness expressing itself. It is a gift really, to be able to feel fully, even if they are difficult feelings.
When you allow yourself to fully feel anger, sadness, fear…it allows yourself to also be fully open to experiencing joy, happiness, fulfillment, and peace. It opens you up.
But don’t take my word for it. Try it out for yourself. Next time a difficult emotion comes up – see if you can first Notice it and then Allow it to be as it is. Sit down, or lie down and just watch the emotion play out, without trying to control it. Let the fire slowly fade. Take a deep breath and see what happens.
And next time I’ll share another way of approaching these difficult fires within.
Ellis Edmunds, Psy.D.
Therapy for Anxiety, Panic, and Relationship Stress in Oakland, CA
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