Embracing the Dark Emotions

We have all encountered emotions that we find terrifying, overwhelming, inconvenient and in all manners uncomfortable. Our cultural and individual conditioning have often converged to impart the understanding that such emotions such as fear, anger, sadness, shame, guilt, despair, and so on are "dangerous", "destructive" or even "weak" and therefore in need of subjugation and control. Therefore, many of us spend much of our time and energy in countless strategies to control, avoid and distance ourselves from the "dark emotions".

Over many years of conducting psychotherapy, I have had the growing realization that much personal suffering and even the formation of many psychiatric difficulties arises as a direct result of endeavors to distance ourselves from painful emotions. Certainly, I am not alone in this recognition. Increasingly, contemporary psychology is recognizing this truth; that it is what we don't feel that causes unnecessary suffering. Applying this then to psychotherapy, it has been said that. "The role of psychotherapy is not to make people feel better, but to help people better feel".

Increasingly, contemporary psychology and psychotherapy has been plundering ancient knowledge from Buddhist and other Eastern philosophies, and integrating it into modern psychology. Mindfulness practice, a form of Buddhist meditation is a technique wherein the practitioners are asked to watch their own thoughts and emotions in an open and detached manner. Increasingly, therapists are helping their clients to penetrate more deeply into their pain using such practices. In behavioral psychology, forms of therapy known as exposure therapies, seek to maximally expose clients to feared or avoided settings, images, or events to bring about extinction or habituation to such cues. My own approach is to combine elements of both to forge a powerful mechanism to help clients to embrace the dark emotions.

The first step is to identify what emotions we are attempting to avoid through a given behavior. So let's say someone is procrastinating studying for a test. Perhaps what the person is really avoiding are fears of failure, or personal feelings of shame and inadequacy. The person could be encouraged to directly embrace such feelings in a mindful and open manner. So, I would instruct the individual to close their eyes and focus their attention on the notion that a test is looming in the near future and the associated feelings, images, thoughts, memories that emerge. They are then to hold their attention on the arising bodily sensations. As the most surface feelings soften under the light of attention, deeper feelings and associated sensations may then be encountered. In this manner, gradually the concentric layers of the onion are peeled back and energies that were blocked become less stuck and more dynamic.

The point of such approaches is not to erase pain. Pain is an inextricable consequence of being alive. The goal is to be able to journey anywhere within ourselves and ultimately learn that we can find peace in the heart of pain. It is only by facing and embracing pain as it arises in all its manifestations, that we can grow and more fully realize our potential. Adapted from "How To Lose Control and Gain Emotional Freedom: Embracing the Dark Emotions Through Integrative Mindful Exposure" by Jerry Duvinsky, PhD.
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