“Riding The Wave”: A Tool for Processing Uncomfortable Emotions
(4 min read)
We are creatures of desire, us human beings, and we are constantly driven by what we seek. It doesn’t matter where we come from or what our backgrounds are, what we have in common is this simple fact: That we desire to get rid of whatever we consider to be unpleasant, and we desire to have more of what we consider to be pleasurable.
On the surface we seek external stimuli, situations, things and people that we associate with pleasure, or a lack of discomfort. These might come in the form of money, property, a romantic partner, a job, food, gaming, travel, chocolate, drugs, social media likes, and so on and so forth. But, whatever the form, the reason we are attracted to certain stimuli and not others is because of the pleasant emotions they elicit for us internally. On the other hand, we avoid certain types of stimuli for the opposite reason – because of the unpleasant emotions that they elicit for us internally.
This is generally all good and well as long as it serves a survival purpose. Back in “cave man” days, for example, we sought to either avoid, fight or flee dangerous wild animals because, not only did it serve to reduce our anxiety levels (our uncomfortable emotions), but it kept us from being eaten alive – a pretty good reason for trying to diminish our unpleasant emotions, I’d say! However, nowadays we get caught up in seeking and avoiding things, not necessarily for direct survival purposes, but because we’re simply afraid of facing the unpleasant emotions that we associate with them.
In fact, we’ve developed such an aversion to our negative emotions that when we encounter them, we’ll do just about anything to push them away, to cover them up, deny them, or otherwise get rid of them. In the world of clinical psychology, we see this at work in the form of mental illness – addictions serve to mask the presence of uncomfortable feelings such as despair, guilt, loneliness or shame. Compulsive actions in OCD serve to soothe the anxiety that arises when something “doesn’t feel quite right.” Physical avoidance of people as observed in those with social phobia can serve to minimize feelings of self-consciousness or low self-worth when around others, etc.
The thing is, when we avoid or push unpleasant emotions away, we don’t often get better as a result. While we believe we’re better off, the payoff usually only lasts in the short term. In reality, if we don’t learn to face our unpleasant emotions, we only drag their presence out longer than need be, and we actually create more uncomfortable emotions in the process.
The truth is, emotions are impermanent and transitory. This means that no matter what type of emotion arises (pleasant or unpleasant), it will soon wear out and pass by, making room for the next emotion to arise, wear out and pass by… This means that even the most horrible emotion that we can imagine – while it may feel all-encompassing at the time – will eventually pass by on its own if we let it run its course. Where we run into problems is when we try to force it to go away before it’s ready. When this happens, we disrupt the natural course of its processing, meaning the emotion never gets the chance to fully resolve itself. If this is the case, then unpleasant, unresolved emotions will continue to bump up against us until we actually do decide to face them. The longer we try to push our experiences away, however, the more irritated and distressed we become (like an annoying mosquito that keeps on coming back). Soon, the persistence of the emotion creates a sense of discomfort over and above the original discomfort of the emotion itself. In this way, when we try to push it away, our discomfort is merely intensified.
When it comes to dealing with uncomfortable emotions (and let’s face it, we’ll never not be confronted by them as long as we’re alive!), there are a few things we can do:
1| Welcome our unpleasant emotions in and experience them fully. In mindfulness-based psychotherapies, such as DBT, this is known as “riding the wave.”
When we do this, instead of pushing the emotion away via binge eating or drinking or distracting ourselves with compulsive shopping or gambling or avoidance of conversations, thoughts, situations, or people, we open ourselves up to the emotion and allow it the chance to fully arise, take form, and eventually drop away by itself. Although this exercise can feel intense, there is not a single emotion that is permanent, so it’s important to remember that the feeling won’t last forever. The long-term benefit of staying with our emotions is that we’re giving them the opportunity to fully process, and once processing is complete, they won’t feel the need to come back again (or, they will do so with less and less frequency and intensity over time).
2| Take a step back and watch our emotions play out with a sense of curiosity (like a scientist studying the human condition), and without trying to change our experiences.
When we “ride the wave,” it’s also important to bring with us a sense of interest and exploration in the process. In doing so, we might ask ourselves a series of questions about the emotion, like: What does the feeling really feel like? How intense is it? If it were a colour or a shape, what would it look like? Likewise, we can ask ourselves what associated physical sensations come up in our body. When we do this, we can essentially diminish the impact of the unpleasantness (it may be not quite as bad as we imagined!), while still confronting our emotions and allowing ourselves to move on.
3| Experience our emotions changing shape and form over time, revealing an underlying sense of calm and peace that lies underneath.
Once we sit with an emotion for some time, we might notice that it begins to shift or morph into a brand-new emotion (or set of emotions), like anger, guilt, loneliness, shame, abandonment or fear. If this happens, this is okay! In fact, try to welcome these experiences in. For most of us, as long as we see each emotion through to completion, we find that an overall sense of calm and tranquility lies underneath. If we can allow ourselves to reach this point, then we’ll realize that we’re ultimately okay, and we can move on without having to resort to the addictive, compulsive, or otherwise unhelpful behaviours that we once had to rely on to get us by. In fact, we might even find a deeper sense of liberation and freedom in the process.
Note: When facing overpowering emotions, it may help to engage in some form of physical activity to help “blow off steam” before attempting this exercise. If you feel that your emotions are too unbearable to face without putting you at risk of serious harm, then please consult a counsellor or psychologist and do not attempt the process on your own.