Many years ago, when my youngest was still in Montessori school, she would howl her lungs out and cling to me desperately every single morning when I dropped her off with her teacher. I would be distraught as I reluctantly made my way back to my car, often hanging around in the parking lot so I could peek in to make sure she had calmed down. Invariably, I found her to be the life of the party mere minutes after our turbulent goodbyes. But I struggled for way longer.
One day, I approached her teacher and asked her how we could make the parting easier on both of us. She looked at me for a bit, then simply replied: “Have you seen her laugh?” Of course I had! My daughter’s infectious outburst always sent ripples of laughter to everyone around her. As I smiled in recollection, the teacher said calmly, “Well then, if you want to get rid of her wails, you can also say goodbye to her laughter.”
I learned an important lesson, for which I later found ample evidence in Brené Brown’s work on shame. I learned that one of the main reasons that emotions exist is to help us plan our way forward. When we label them, reject them, and refuse to listen to them, they bounce back louder, eager to be heard, determined to keep us safe. We either end up taking actions that are driven by fear—or we numb our emotions so we don’t feel their intensity. In doing so, we also numb ourselves to the joys of being alive.
If you relate in any way, here’s a 4-step process that can help you live a more wholehearted life.
1. Welcome It Kindly
When you feel out of sorts, center yourself with a few deep breaths and connect inward to the emotion you’re experiencing. Give it a name, and allow it the space to simply be. Say, “Hello, sadness” if that’s what you’re feeling, and let it roam freely until it’s ready to leave—because emotions are fleeting by their very nature.
2. Soften It Gently
However, this doesn’t mean emotions can’t hurt while they’re still around. Get into your body—a body scan can really help—and try to identify where in your body you feel the greatest intensity of the emotion. Once you do, place your hand over the area and gently apply pressure to it, so you allow the healing power of touch to release oxytocin, making you feel calmer.
3. Explore It Wisely
Once you’ve practiced this unguided self-compassion, you’ll be less driven by the fear centers of your brain and more able to connect to your wiser prefrontal cortex. That’s when you can ask yourself what the emotion is trying to tell you. Is it reminding you of something you value? Or is it exaggerating a potential outcome based on earlier unpleasant experiences?
4. Act Courageously
Paul Gilbert’s work on self-compassion shows that being compassionate with ourselves leads not just to wisdom, but also to courage. When we’re accepting of ourselves—including the emotions we feel—not only are we in a position to decide what to do next, but we also have a certain boldness that comes from aligning ourselves with our values. The more specific you are about what you’ll do, the easier it is to take that important first step.
I’ve come to see how most of my own personal growth has been in embracing the negative emotions in my life. I’ve also seen how shaming myself for those emotions has been the fastest way to make myself feel unworthy and unacceptable. True self-worth grows from a place of acceptance—and that includes accepting our full range of emotions.