Mindfulness is one of the most accessible tools at our disposal to deal with these hard-to-have feelings productively. Unfortunately, a common misconception I hear when talking to executives about mindfulness is that it’s aimed at detaching from feelings. That’s a potentially harmful misunderstanding — in fact, mindfulness can help us get in touch with our feelings and overcome a tendency most of us have to bypass them.
Bypassing is harmful not only to our own health and well-being but also to our relationships with others. Research suggests that professionals who are trained to fake their feelings are much more likely to experience physical and mental health challenges.
There Are Three Methods We Commonly Use to Bypass Feelings:
When we suppress a feeling, we push it down and put it aside. We don’t want to be bothered by it and might not know what to do with it. Some feelings may be harder for us to have than others, depending on what messages we’ve received culturally or from family.
We can also try to escape the feeling entirely, usually by engaging in some form of numbing activity. Drinking, watching TV, consuming social media, and obsessively checking the news or email can all serve as means of avoidance.
3. Acting on it
Some pride themselves on their tendency to simply act on a feeling (for example, by writing a reactionary, angry email instead of taking time to think it through first). Acting on a feeling in triggering moments usually means dumping the hard-to-have feeling on someone else and blaming them for our anger, sadness, or frustration. Like suppressing and escaping, impulsively acting on a feeling is an attempt to avoid it.
Bypassing has many downsides. A bypassed feeling doesn’t get resolved. Suppressed anger, for example, doesn’t disappear — it gets bottled up and can lead us to feel more aggressive, or it morphs into passive-aggressiveness and slowly erodes our relationships. Feelings are often signaling that some action is needed. For example, a feeling of anger may mean that a boundary has been crossed and needs to be restored, that we need to stand up for a need we have, or that saying no is in order. When we allow ourselves to feel our anger in a mindful way, it can help us make conscious choices about what to do with it.
Here are three strategies for dealing with your feelings before they take a toll on you:
1. Feel the Feeling — Without Judging or Controlling it.
The first step in becoming mindful is to understand what it is you’re feeling. Many of us have poor emotional literacy, and amid the stress of back-to-back meetings, we often don’t even know what feelings we’re bringing with us to any given situation. Research has shown that putting our feelings into words (the more specific, the better) can reduce the distress caused by an experience.
Throughout the day, when you notice yourself getting frustrated, anxious, or sad, try to find a moment to pause. Start by focusing on your breath, then see if you can name your experience. Now locate the feeling within your body (most of us feel our feelings in certain parts of the body). Don’t try to change it or do anything with it — simply observe it. What is the sensation? When you do this, you’ll usually notice that bodily sensations and feelings aren’t static. You may feel your sadness as the pressure in the chest at first, but as you become attuned to it, you may then feel the sensation of a stab in the heart. Once you stop resisting the feeling and give it proper attention, it will often move and eventually dissipate. This approach can be a surprising paradigm shift for many of us who aren’t used to allowing our feelings.
2. Drop the Story, Not the Feeling.
Our minds are thought-generating machines, and we quickly come up with all kinds of explanations for our feelings, many of them centered on blaming others for how we’re feeling (“I’m angry because my boss isn’t supporting my project”) or constructing reasons for why we should feel the way we do (“I saw the look on the client’s face and am certain she doesn’t like me”). Mindfulness allows us to realize that while external events might have been the trigger for our feelings, it’s our interpretation of those events that actually cause them, which gives us back agency. Our stories can be endless and self-reinforcing, and engaging in them usually only breeds more stories. In mindfulness, we learn to gradually disengage from our belief in these stories. In fact, a large part of what we do in mindfulness is noticing that we’re caught in thought and then returning to the breath.
Letting go of the story is not the same as accepting the situation. Dropping the story, not the feeling, allows us to approach the situation with curiosity and a willingness to learn, and leveraging the energy behind the feeling can propel us into action. It helps us move our focus from the past to the future and the possibilities it holds.
3. Reveal, Don’t Conceal.
A simple check-in question like “What am I feeling?” provides a tremendous opportunity to share feelings with others, which creates intimacy and connection.
Revealing involves sharing feelings, not in the heat of the moment, but when we’re in a reflective state. Instead of blaming the other person’s behavior as responsible for our negative feeling, we share our interpretation of the person’s behavior or situation and reveal how we created our feelings based on that interpretation.