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How to Keep Emotions From Running Your Life

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The worst period of my life ended shortly after I made a key discovery: most of the difficult experiences in my life arose directly from my desperate need to avoid difficult experiences.

At the time, I was flunking in school. I was a bad student because I avoided asking for help or revisiting concepts I hadn’t grasped the first time. I avoided those things precisely because they made me feel like a bad student.

It was a perfectly self-defeating strategy, but of course I didn’t realize what I was doing until later.

I had inadvertently made certain emotional experiences—in particular, the feeling of being seen as incompetent—so unacceptable that I’d do anything to avoid them, which is precisely why they continued to dominate my life.

The light came when I discovered a simple principle that’s sometimes described as “exposure therapy”. You experiment, a bit at a time, with letting yourself feel the things you’re afraid to feel, and watch them lose their power over you. 

We Think About Our Feelings So That We Don’t Have to Feel Them

I was a particularly hard case, but we all do this to some extent. We empower certain difficult emotions by trying to never feel them. The effect can snowball until it becomes crippling.

Desperately avoiding the experience of embarrassment, for example, leads to habits of extreme shyness. This only further stigmatizes embarrassment, and stunts the social skills that can prevent it or mitigate it. Shyness seems, at first, like a reasonable defense against embarrassment, but it only makes it into a looming specter that controls your life.

Avoidance has a way of empowering the thing you’re avoiding. We suffer this effect in more subtle ways too. Today, because entertainment is so readily available, we’ve become almost entirely unwilling to feel boredom. We grow more indignant over delays and technical glitches than our parents and grandparents did. We pull out our phones dozens of times a day, and get anxious when the battery is low. Because we limit our exposure to boredom, it’s more painful than ever, and we’re needier than ever for ways to fend it off.

Experiences that we seldom have tend to be more destabilizing when they do happen. A Floridian who recently moved to New York will suffer more from a cold day than native New Yorker will.

Still, there’s no point in seeking out difficult experiences we can reliably avoid. Avoiding hangovers will make you less prepared to deal with one gracefully when it does happen. But that doesn’t really matter if you’re in a position to never let them happen.

The avoid-at-all-costs strategy works against us, though, when it comes to inevitable human feelings like uncertainty, awkwardness, fear, and disappointment. These are universal, recurring experiences. None of us can live free from these feelings, no matter how badly we’d like to, so any given one will control your life to the extent that you see it as a completely unacceptable experience.

When these kinds of feelings do appear, instead of allowing ourselves to feel them, we often make one last desperate effort to avoid the experience: we think about why we shouldn’t be feeling them.

The mind puts together a case about why this feeling shouldn’t have occurred. If you’re feeling uncertainty or anger or embarrassment, something must have gone wrong in the universe. The mind starts searching for who’s to blame, what so-and-so should have done, how you never get things right, how the world has been corrupted by corporations or bad people—some kind of explanation for why you should not have to experience these very normal feelings.

Ostensibly we do this to solve our problems, to identify offending parties and decide on our responses. But if you examine this kind of rumination, it’s obvious the motive isn’t to figure out what to do next, but to argue that this latest unpleasant emotional experience shouldn’t be happening at all.

However, if you decline the bait, instead playing the brilliant chess-move of letting yourself feel the feeling, you might find something surprising: an unpleasant feeling tends to lose its venom shortly after you decide you don’t need to avoid it. It doesn’t stick around long once it has nothing to fight for.

How Freedom is Made

I’m convinced now that most of the barriers in our personal lives come from the absurd habit of trying to never feel certain totally normal, inevitable human feelings. Our insistence on complete safety from certain undesirable emotions only makes them more destabilizing when they do happen.

Trying to live a life free of your least-favorite emotions is a perfect recipe for neurotic and addictive behavior. In college, I made an unenforceable rule that I must never feel embarrassment, and it basically made my life into a gushing fountain of embarrassment.

We can work on expanding our willingness to feel the full range of human emotion, and when we do, we gradually become more free. It’s really a matter of bringing curiosity, rather than combativeness, to the less-sexy aspects of the human experience.

Uncertainty, for example, is nobody’s favorite feeling, but you’re a lot more free if you know how to manage it gracefully.

This is why I will advocate meditation until the day I die. It’s essentially a bit of time you set aside daily to simply meet your experience, whatever it is.

You set up the simplest, least threatening situation possible—you, sitting still, noticing what it currently feels like to sit still. You are setting aside, for a short part of the day, your impossible mission to always feel a certain way.

Often these sessions are quite pleasant. But over time, you will be visited by all of the less-popular experiences: boredom, nervousness, soreness, restlessness, fatigue, excessive warmth, excessive cold, dampness, cravings for french fries and a thousand more.

In a very gentle and forgiving way, you see what happens when you allow yourself to simply have these experiences as they come.

And you find that for the most part they’re not that bad—at least not as bad as living in fear of them—and that they don’t stay long unless you fight with them. When you stop trying to ban certain feelings from your experience, they tend to pass through relatively easily, in a matter of minutes or even seconds, and nothing is harmed.

Think of it this way: be with nervousness now, and you permanently shrink nervousness’s ability to control your life. Same with fear, boredom, restlessness, anger, indignation, disappointment, clinginess and everything else that’s difficult about being human.

It is hard to overstate how liberating this practice can be over time. Life begins to feel a lot safer, because you’re always expanding the range of experiences you can live with. The more you let yourself feel a given feeling when it does visit you, the less trouble it is for you, forever.

***

This post is an expanded version of one of the daily reflections in Camp Calm, an online intro-to-meditation course I run a few times a year. If you liked this article I think you would like Camp Calm.

The purpose of the camp is to provide the most straightforward possible way to learn to meditate, and establish a daily practice with the support of a group.

The fourth season is starting March 13th, and registration opens this Thursday Monday. More than a thousand people have done it now and the feedback has been great.

I make it as straightforward and doable as possible, without any new-age fluff. Get on the mailing list to learn more about it, and register a day early, if you want to.

More Info | Camp Calm FAQ

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Photo by Joe del Tufo

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Zoe February 27, 2017 at 2:27 am

Another very interesting article, thank you David.
In the last week or so, I’ve been doing this to some extent, mostly to attenuate feelings of depression, etc. and it seems to be working… but I hadn’t really thought about it when it comes to other emotions. Embarrassment doesn’t really bother me, but I do struggle with the notion that I’m a “bad person” whenever I can’t control my temper… which only makes me more annoyed.
When you’re having an argument with someone, though, is there a way to allow yourself to feel the anger you’re experiencing without it making things worse? I often just want a few minutes of calm to experience emotions and let them go (and thus end the argument), but then I get accused of clamming up and not wanting to talk about it. :-(

David Cain February 27, 2017 at 2:53 pm

One key which I probably should have mentioned is to notice the physical, bodily aspect of the feeling. You recognize that there’s anger or indignation present, for example, and then you notice and try to allow the bodily feelings — flushed skin, increased heart rate, tightened jaw, etc.

A lot is made of “letting go” but we can’t always do that. You can’t necessarily feel calm just because you want to. But if you notice the physical side of the negative feeling, and allow it to run its course, the feeling doesn’t snowball. It’s when we start focusing on the verbal side, the thinking side, of the situation around the feeling, that we fuel it further.

If someone in your life accuses you of “clamming up” just tell them as kindly as you can that you’re getting a bit agitated and you’d like to take a moment before arguing or responding. Anyone who doesn’t understand that isn’t someone you’d be able to communicate with at that time anyway. We need to allow ourselves to feel what we feel, and if others don’t, that’s their problem.

Jen February 27, 2017 at 3:42 am

Thank you David. What you write about here, of allowing rather than fighting feelings, has been one of biggest lessons of my year of ongoing chronic illness. I wrote about it myself a few months ago. Jen

http://slowtownsouvenirs.blogspot.com.au/2016/11/making-friends-with-lonely-and.html

David Cain February 27, 2017 at 2:59 pm

It is so helpful just to let ourselves be human. Loneliness, disappointment, weariness.. it’s all so human and it is such a relief to not worry about feeling great all the time.

Anna February 27, 2017 at 3:54 am

I’ve thought of trying this in order to overcome my overwhelming fear of a serious disease. I,ve had weird symptoms for 2 years and all exams turn out fine but I still believe I am seriously ill and ithis fear paralyses me. David, do you think it’s a good idea to allow my fear of death and disability just “be”? Whenever I think of it I am extremely fearful, I start crying, I’m terrified and sometimes I even have panic attacks. I’m afraid that if I let me feel the fear, I’ll just get worse and/or crazy. :(

David Cain February 27, 2017 at 3:05 pm

Hi Anna. Panic attacks, severe anxiety, or anything outside the normal range of human ups and downs should be dealt with by a proper mental health professional, which I am not. I would see if your doctor can refer you to someone to talk to about these extreme levels of fear.

Celia February 27, 2017 at 6:54 am

Brilliant explanation, David!

David Cain February 28, 2017 at 7:47 am

Thanks Celia.

Mrs. Picky Pincher February 27, 2017 at 9:07 am

This is actually true–exposure therapy can sometimes be the most effective way of conquering a fear. Fear or anxiety is absolutely irrational, so the best way to combat it is with the reality that you won’t be harmed.

David Cain February 28, 2017 at 7:45 am

Meditation makes good use of this principle, because you are allowing yourself to see what happens when you don’t force away what you’re feeling, with the knowledge that you’re just sitting safely on the floor and you won’t be harmed. Feelings themselves don’t really harm us, but we do suffer when we insist we can’t be feeling what we are already feeling.

Cassie February 27, 2017 at 11:30 am

A very dear friend taught me the beauty of what she calls “sitting in the discomfort”. Those feelings arise and instead of resisting or burying or fighting them, or hiding from them, you invite it in. Get comfortable with all the ugly thoughts and feelings surrounding it and let them wash over you. Easier said then done but with practice it becomes second nature.

David Cain February 28, 2017 at 7:46 am

Yes. And you can practice this with very, very mild forms of discomfort. Letting yourself feel the chilly breeze for a few seconds before doing up your coat, for example. These little bits of exploring discomfort are so valuable.

Eduardo February 27, 2017 at 4:17 pm

Well done, nicely written, thank you!

David Cain February 28, 2017 at 7:47 am

Thanks Eduardo

Yasha February 27, 2017 at 8:22 pm

Thank you David. That was very helpful.

David Cain February 28, 2017 at 7:47 am

Thanks Yasha.

Vijay February 28, 2017 at 12:38 am

Hey David,
First of all thank you so much for the article. Your article is so articulate that I instantly recognized what I am doing wrong. Till now I did not know how to get rid of that, but now I know a solution exists. The part where you say, sit idle for few minutes and the unpleasant feeling starts to come in. This is so true, I am so scared of such situations that I never try to be idle. Especially at nights, when I don’t get sleep. I force myself to watch a movie or play games for extended periods of time to get exhausted so much that when I lie down I don’t think about anything but close my eyes and sleep. This affects my normal life, because I sleep very less and am sleep deprived. Question to you is, theoritically I believe this might overcome my problem, i.e. experience those horrific idle moments. However, is it practical to overcome these, what if it even makes it worser? I fear of this – “An idle mind is a devil’s workshop”

David Cain February 28, 2017 at 8:06 am

It’s hard to imagine what could be worse than being chased around by your thoughts forever.

It is practical to overcome, at least with a regular meditation practice. We are almost entirely governed by our conditioning, so just deciding to be idle now and then probably won’t stick. Meditation reconditions your mind to allow yourself to explore your present-moment experience, even when there’s boredom or restlessness or other feelings that normally chase you into action.

As for “An idle mind is the devil’s workshop”… as far as I know it’s “idle hands”, and the idea as I understand it is to keep yourself busy with productive work otherwise your baser desires will propagate. I think they would have counted movies and video games as the “idle” category.

My guess is that the iron-age sages that wrote that proverb recognized that people tend to respond to restlessness and boredom with indulgence and other reactive/destructive behaviors. They probably didn’t know about exposure therapy or meditation so work was their best prescription.

Abhijeet Kumar February 28, 2017 at 12:57 am

Feeling emotions can be really hard. I have been meditating for over an year and a half, and it has helped me become more accepting, and curious of my emotions. My ability to live with that inevitable feeling of uncertainty, that all of us have to face at several points in our lives, has also grown, but there are times, when I fall back to the pattern of avoidance.

I understand that I can accept and watch this tendency to avoid, and that’s where I can make progress. One example of this would be, I tend to avoid reading news stories. Generally, I see them as an excuse to find worries in life on top of what already exists in our lives. :) But sometimes, avoiding news feels like denial. Negative emotions are tricky. On one hand, I can see how feeling positive emotions, for a few minutes, can add resilience and capability to be constructive when things become challenging. But negative emotions can be crippling and it is not straight forward to move from negative to positive, we have to stay with and accept the negative before it wanes away to make room for positive emotions.

In an ideal world, I would stay away from news, and refuse to generalize, and live life moment to moment.

David Cain February 28, 2017 at 8:11 am

I feel the same thing about news. There is such a clear negative effect on the mood, but at the same time I feel a different kind of aversion to completely ignoring it. Being aware of those feelings doesn’t make all of our decisions for us.

We don’t have to completely uproot aversion though. The real problem is when we live without any awareness of its effect on our lives. Just learning to be aware of the basic feelings of attraction and aversion makes a huge difference, because then you’re able to consciously decide whether it makes sense to listen to the aversion impulse or act in spite of it. Without that awareness, we’re just living in reaction.

Abhijeet Kumar February 28, 2017 at 2:55 am

As I was typing my comment, I let some emotions pass through my body and felt in harmony. Thank you for your post.

David Cain February 28, 2017 at 8:11 am

:)

Charvee P February 28, 2017 at 11:21 am

Beautiful! One of the things I learnt from meditation, more so from Vipassna – seeing emotions as they are, without any judgement or any attachment. Letting them be and treating them as sinusodial waves that rise and fall. This eastern philosophy of seeing things as they are without any liking or disliking towards them, especially emotions, helps you experience them in all it’s entirety. Like the stoics say, and I believe, that an extremely optimistic person is as out of balance as a pessimist. and yes, always an advocate of meditation till I die!! Thank You, David! :)

David Cain February 28, 2017 at 2:08 pm

Thanks Charvee. We could think of vipassana as an extremely well-refined form of this kind of openness. However far a person goes with it, it’s so useful.

Nitya February 28, 2017 at 1:38 pm

Another insightful piece David; thank you. My daughter had a similar experience. Always a very good student she managed to get into the most prestigious course at our most prestigious university. At the time she was able to avoid using the computer during her high school years and was virtually ‘computer illiterate’. This was not good enough at university level and she was expected to become proficient.

What followed was a massive ‘crisis of confidence’ and she eventually dropped out and fled to Canada on the pretense of ‘wanting to travel’. In time she had to return and face the music but unfortunately she ended up taking an inferior course and is stuck in a job for which she’s temperamentally unsuited.

In time she may return to her studies, but as she is now married with young children I suspect it won’t be for a while. Pity! Such a waste of an extremely competent maths/science brain.

There is an upside to this tale. I was determined that computer proficiency was not ‘pie in the sky’ and set about to educate myself in order to be of assistance. My daughter still eschewed the help of modern technology whist I became the envy of my peers. ‘You’re never too old to learn’ must be the moral of this story.

David Cain February 28, 2017 at 2:12 pm

This is remarkably similar to my story, except that there was nothing prestigious about my school, I was just completely unprepared to face the music. I went out west to live on a ski resort, then came home and had a rough year or so and gradually entered a second unsuitable career. Ten years later I’m in the right one. Long and winding roads are okay :)

Barbara February 28, 2017 at 4:28 pm

One way in which being in these quiet places has influenced me, is in learning how to do what I do for myself – just notice, without judging what is there, with respect to the significant others in my life. Don’t always do a pristine job on it, but am learning to suspend my judgements, and trusting that will not damage my evaluative reasoning, when needed, will still kick in.

Heather March 1, 2017 at 9:07 am

This is such a great post, David! Thank you!
The exposure therapy is a strategy I’ve tried, but only now do I realize that’s what I’m doing.
I used to be paralyzed with fear about being wrong (aka incorrect, inaccurate). About anything. No matter how slight.
But when I recently recognized that being wrong occasionally is a fundamental part of the human condition, and I was insane to think I was going to weasel my way out of it, I started intentionally working on changing my relationship to it.
My standard response to situations where I’ve said or done something incorrectly is the phrase, “Sometimes I’m wrong.” I would say it to whoever I was with, sort of a shorthand for “Something you should know about me: sometimes I’m wrong.” That phrase kept me from internalizing being wrong about something to thinking I was wrong as a person.
At this point, I’ve said it so many times that there is no sting left at all. And I actually delight when I say it these days because I remember how paralyzing this condition once was, and to be reminded that I’m free of it is a pleasure.
I’d love to find a phrase I could use for when I feel shame or isolation.

Velouria Crawford March 2, 2017 at 9:54 am

Have you ever explored anything about Acceptance and Commitment Therapy? It was developed by psychologist Dr. Steven Hayes at the Univ. of Nevada. It’s based on pretty much the same thing you are writing about but adds in academic research and concepts like experiential avoidance and psychological flexibility. Very interesting stuff and completely backs up what you are saying! It’s a relatively new school of thought but with the popularization of meditation in Western society it’s been gaining steam with clinical therapists and psychologists.

Kerry March 3, 2017 at 5:19 pm

Very glad to have found your site. Speaks right to me.
I find myself right now in the worst depression I have ever had. I have had so many sad circumstances in my life that I just cannot get over.

Sourav Adhikari March 4, 2017 at 2:49 pm

Thanks for sharing

Gabriel March 5, 2017 at 1:14 pm

Beautiful, simple and straight to the point. Interesting how often we take the bait without even noticing.
Thanks for this!

Herbert March 6, 2017 at 5:43 pm

Thank you, David. May the merits of this awesome text expand and touch all beeings.

finja March 7, 2017 at 4:53 am

Yay, so happy I discovered your blog. Now following via Bloglovin! :)
xx finja | http://www.effcaa.com

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