4 Steps to Processing Emotions

Knowing what to do when we experience emotions tends to be one of the biggest things people struggle with. We either feel like they take over and control us or we can find ourselves on the other side of the spectrum by shutting down and avoiding them. Biologically, emotions are meant to prompt us into action. The word itself means “energy in motion.” This energy is to provide us with a signal that something is important and we need to pay attention to it. But if we are letting them spiral us out of control or avoiding them at all costs, we are missing out on the message these experiences are trying to provided. And emotions that are not listened to do not tend to go away. The message it was trying to deliver has not been received and therefore it sits in the inbox as a persistent unread message notification with the messages pilling up until the time comes when it is opened and read.

Here are 4 steps you can use and practice to be able to process your emotional experience and receive the messages they are trying to share with you:

1. Notice

What is it like for you when you recognize you are feeling an emotion? What feels different or how do you know something feels off? Begin to notice and become aware of your emotional experience without judgement. Emotions are neither good or bad, but are all just experiences helping us understand ourselves and the world around us better. This step is less about doing and more about awareness. The best way to process our emotions is to become the witnessing observer to our experience instead of feeling like the experience is part of our identity or says something about us as a person. Emotions are not who we are, they are simply energetic expressions and signals.

2. Allow

Once you notice an emotion and sensation is there, allow the emotion to be there. A rule of thumb is “that which we resist, persists” so allowing the experience helps the emotions move through us. Experiencing emotional pain is a part of life and accepting that as a fact can help you with being able to be with your experience instead of resisting it. While emotional pain is apart of life, emotional suffering comes from resisting experiencing the pain therefore Emotional suffering = pain x resistance. Begin practicing leaning into your emotions and allowing what needs to come out be there. This might involve a cry, scream, or movement in some way and allowing that to come out helps with letting emotions move through and let them go.

3. Explore

After you become aware you are feeling an emotion and you allow it to be there, begin exploring and observing it. Ask yourself: What emotion am I feeling? Where do I feel this emotion in my body? What is this emotion trying to tell me? If this emotion could speak, what would it say? What brought this emotion up? What did I just experience, see, or think before I started feeling this emotion? Spend time feeling into the answers of these questions instead of trying to think of a response. If you slow down and be present with your experience, it is likely your body will speak back to you with information that will be helpful in understanding your emotional experience. Don’t get caught up on the thoughts or the story you are creating about your emotional experience. Racing negative thoughts can point to an emotional experience happening under the surface so instead of getting caught up in the thoughts, use that as a marker to notice your emotional experience. Bring your focus back to where you feel the emotion in your body. To help keep your focus on your emotions, you could name out loud the emotion and where you feel it to help focus your attention. Begin practicing naming emotions like they are an experience instead of part of your identity like “I feel sadness in my throat” or “I sense fear in my gut” instead of “I am sad” or “I am scared.” Acknowledging and naming your emotions can help tame them by creating separation from them as being a part of you instead of who you are as a person.

4. Validate

Now that you have become aware you are feeling an emotion, allowed it to be there, and explored it to gain any information, insight, or understanding that the emotion came to bring you, your next job is to validate it. The emotion would not be arising if there was not a reason for the emotion to be there. You can know it is valid because you are feeling the emotion, which makes it a real experience. Denying an emotion or telling yourself you “shouldn’t” be feeling something is another way of resisting or avoiding processing and experiencing your emotions. Part of being a human is to experience a wide variety of emotions from happiness and gratitude to sadness, anger, and fear. It is completely natural and a needed part of life to feel alive. Validation also opens up to the experience of comforting, which is what heavy emotional pain needs. If we experience our pain as valid, we can open ourselves up to being gentle, kind, and loving with ourselves. Often times the need for comfort is the message emotional pain is trying to send you. It can feel like an emotional risk to open the message but the result can end in feeling more internal ease and comfort by processing emotions and letting them move through us.

Things to remember:

  • Give yourself time. Learning a new way to be with your emotions takes time. Be patient with yourself and do not rush the experience of being with your emotions. It is totally understandable that you want the pain to feel better but rushing it is just another way of trying to push the pain away and creating more resistance. Emotions come in waves and therefore this experience will pass.
  • No matter how powerful an emotion may feel, it is always only an emotion and is not something to fear. We are capable of feeling even extreme emotions. While they will be painful to feel, they cannot physically hurt us. It is often in the resistance of feeling these strong emotions when we find ourselves hurting by our actions of avoidance such as finding ways to numb our emotional pain.

Written by Malinda King, MA, LPCC

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