Uh Ok, But WHY Do I Need to Sit With My Emotions?
"I didn't get anything out of it when I used to do what you do - just sit there feeling my emotions. I'd just end up doing something reckless and making everything worse."
Someone I know said this to me recently with an air of exasperation, and I winced at the pain of our communication gap. I started to explain how not sitting with negative emotions = survival mode, but taking action based on negative emotions is ALSO survival mode - but I sensed I'd already lost their interest. Sigh...
Then it occurred to me: Wait a minute.. Has anyone ever explained WHY we must "sit with our emotions," as is always encouraged nowadays? Honestly, what are the actual concrete benefits of sitting in pain rather than distracting, which seems like a MUCH better option? I've never heard a good explanation, so I'm going to try to give one in this article.
(Side note: If you're interested in what creates the gap between knowing the right thing to do and actually DOING it, you may want to read this too).
Why sitting in presence with painful emotions is non-negotiable
If you want to live a status quo live, by all means, never sit with a single god damn emotion - ever. Seriously, run from all of those bastards! Go smoke cigarettes, eat ice cream, fight with your partner, or distract yourself with endless chores. But if you're reading this, I'm guessing you're at least semi-interested in what I call 'going off the beaten path.' Or maybe you're super interested - like you're dying to go all in but just don't know how.
If you're even a little bit intrigued by things like growth, self-actualization, freedom, self-esteem, or strong relationships, this super-fun practice of sitting in pain is for you ;)
So here's my case for sitting with your emotions - the most basic & mundane mental health teaching that no one ever bothers to explain :)
1. If you can't stand to feel something, it means that you are keeping YOU at bay. Thus you can't understand yourself, validate or soothe yourself, or know what actions to take to resolve difficult situations. You are basically floating in a land of ignorance and disempowerment with no end in sight. Furthermore, each negative emotion comes from a wounded, immature aspect of self. Thus, ignoring them is like ignoring a million crying babies - who wants to be that person?
2. Your capacity to sit with very difficult emotions is EQUAL to your capacity to show up in various situations without abandoning yourself and misleading others (eg. lying, people-pleasing, being inauthentic, etc).
3. You don't know WHY you keep doing what you're doing. This is a tricky one, and one that continues to amaze me the deeper I go into shadow work. The layers that reveal themselves when you make a practice of just sitting in presence are really...meta? In other words, you learn things about yourself you TOTALLY did not understand before, and continuing with the same old bs patterns suddenly seems ridiculous from this new and profound depth of understanding. These moments are the game-changers, btw.
4. Nervous system re-wiring - Plain and simple, some traumas or issues in our lives seem to threaten our survival so intensely, we are almost out of control of ourselves (ALMOST). When you see someone lashing out, ruining a relationship for the 1000th time, or engaging in an addiction they swore they'd quit, you can be absolutely sure that DEEP nervous system wiring is at play. When answering the question: Are we really in control of ourselves, the answer is... sorta.
I once read a quote about neuroplasticity years ago that said something like, "The brain is flexible enough to change, but rigid enough that it won't change all at once." This is the entire reason for shadow work. Yes, you will have occasional moments where you make amazing progress and everything seems to shift in an instance. But more often, you're in the slog, riding on the hope that all your hard work will slowly pay off over time. And it does, just not nearly as fast as you would like it to.
5. If you can't tolerate and work with your own emotions, you run the risk of becoming someone who makes life difficult and lonely for those around you. You quietly send them the message that their feelings are not welcome into the relationship, and if they do bring them in, you'll either get uncomfortable, judge them, try to 'fix' them, or otherwise fail to empathize and connect with them simply because emotions, ew, gross. Basically, you run the risk of being very bad at relationships.
6. Intuition development - This is more of a "why it's important to meditate" point, but I wanted to include it anyway. Intuition development is often painted up as some kooky thing that only psychics can do, but this is honestly just sad because it shows how far we are from really being self-led individuals. As you probably know, anyone can develop intuition, and you may have a lot or at least a little contact with your own.
There are two major things that totally BLOCK intuition in my experience, and these are:
Lots of thinking and mental activity
Trauma (blindspots that exist due to trauma, heavy/recurring states like depression & anxiety, triggers, fight/flight responses)
I cannot stress enough how being under the spell of your traumatic patterns blocks intuition and makes people feel completely incapable of change or improvement of any kind. When triggers are loud, intuition gets completely drowned out.
I have wished on so many occasions that there was a magic bullet for all of this, some way to nip it all in the bud in one weekend. But alas, this is not the case because we are rewiring the nervous system's survival responses, and this is actually a process of CONSCIOUS evolution (so hopefully that makes you feel better about yourself - You're like a fish that's slowly learning to walk on land!)
Lastly, there is one core reason that "sitting with your emotions" is kinda like the answer to all problems: Safety. When you sit with painful emotions again and again, you are literally teaching yourself to be emotionally invincible - that you can create safety for yourself in ANY emotional storm, any turbulence in your life. As a sensitive person, you become like the eye of your own storm. This goes beyond Stoicism, in my opinion, and into much deeper layers of power. It's not just about cultivating stillness and the elusion of strength - It's about developing the duality between witness and experiencer. You can be in the midst of the densest emotion ever, feeling totally immersed in it, but also fully in your power - what a paradox, right?
Establishing this safe connection between the 'higher and lower' selves is what lays the foundation for change faster than anything else you can do.
So if you're wondering, "How do i fix _____!?!?" The answer might just be: Sit with it. Make an evening out of it. Frankly, what better, more important things do you have to do in your life that you can't make some time for, ya know, RADICAL EVOLUTION?