BWPortrait01-2016This is a guest blog from my friend and thinking partner Giles Lascelle. He is a transformational coach, trainer and writer, based in the UK. You can find out more about his work at:

Many of us, especially in the developed world, seem to live at the mercy of ‘negative’ emotions. Our day to day lives are impacted by stress, anxiety, frustration and low self-esteem – which are merely the more acceptable faces of fear, anger, sadness and shame. Everything in our culture tells us these negative feelings are at one and the same time, unacceptable and inevitable.

We tell ourselves two contradictory stories. One, gives us hope that eventually, when external circumstances change, our lives will no longer be impacted by these difficult and painful feelings. The other, tells us we will always be stuck with difficult feelings, because they are evidence of our inherent badness and unworthiness.

These two views are exacerbated by toxic forms of spirituality and religion, with their narratives of our inherent and total depravity. A state from which we can only hope to find freedom if we meet certain criteria, keep certain rules or possibly after we’re dead.

Typical pain management strategies

In the face of these difficult emotions, we have developed a few strategies to help us deal with or manage these feelings, so they don’t get out of hand and cause trouble.

1. Avoidance

One option is to avoid or run away from the feelings. We pretend they aren’t there, numbing ourselves to their presence with drugs, drink, food, sex, material acquisition, busyness or indeed anything we can think of to avoid having to face them. In extreme cases we may numb the feeling faculty altogether; damaging our capacity to engage fully with any emotions, even the positive ones.

The bio-medical model of mental health is an institutional example of this particular strategy, as its main strategy of choice is to medicate away all those ‘bad’ feelings.

In terms of our personal narrative, when we use the avoidance strategy, we take up the position of absentee, refusing to be present to our difficult feelings.

2. Resistance

Another option is to resist the difficult feelings. We know they are there, but we consider it our duty to push them back or cover them over with positive thinking, affirmations, declarations and personal growth clichés. We treat them as an enemy to be defeated, or at least contained and managed.

As a result we live our lives at high alert, like a city under siege. Today the anger, the fear and the sadness haven’t scaled the walls or broken down the gate, but tomorrow they could, so we must remain vigilant and give them no quarter.

If we think about his strategy as part of our personal narrative, we find ourselves in the position of martyr or holy warrior, battling the forces of darkness against overwhelming odds.

3. Capitulation

The final option, usually only resorted to when the other options have been exhausted, is to capitulate, and allow ourselves to be flooded by the difficult and painful emotions. Then, because they feel just too difficult and painful to contain, we act them out either consciously or unconsciously.

Acting out means we inflict the fall-out from our inability to contain those feelings on the people around us in a mostly unconscious attempt to get others to take responsibility for how we feel. We do this in the hope that we will be comforted, fixed or otherwise have our needs met. Just because the motives behind our actions are unconscious, it doesn’t mean there is no purpose to them. When that stops working for us – because even the hardiest emotional rescuers eventually run out of steam – we retreat to positions of bitterness and blaming those who have ‘let us down’ – at least until we can find someone else to take emotional responsibility for us.

Framed as part of our personal narrative, we oscillate in a self-destructive cycle between the positions of trespasser and victim.

The core assumption that drives our stories about difficult emotions is that pain and discomfort are something to be avoided at all costs.

Changing our assumptions about ‘negative’ emotions

The core assumption that drives our stories about difficult emotions is that pain and discomfort are something to be avoided at all costs. But what if that assumption is not in fact correct? When painful emotions are triggered, the emotional and even physical discomfort can become intense. Everything in us wants to resort to our habitual strategies, to run, to resist, to capitulate – anything to shut off the flow. What might happen if we were able, even for a short period of time, simply to be with the discomfort, including the drive to disengage – but without acting upon those feelings?

The challenge we face, is that once difficult emotions have been triggered in us it makes it much harder to learn a different way of processing them, at least to begin with. Strong emotions are highly energetic, and once those energies are unleashed, along with all the thoughts and feelings that go with them, we can easily feel overwhelmed. In response, we tend to fall into our usual defensive responses.

A better practice for life?

My suggestion is that we need to find a way of working with these energies before they are triggered. We need a pre-emptive practice – to develop a new strategy we can learn to apply in the rest of life, and especially when we are flooded with negative or difficult feelings.

The consensus seems to be that after we sit with things for a while, we discover something interesting.

When I teach people to meditate, I often begin by asking them to rest their attention in the physical sensations of their bodies. What are the sensations at the contact points – feet on floor, backside on chair or floor, hands in lap or on knees? Then I ask them go deeper into the realm of sensation. Where are the points of physical tension, discomfort or pain? What if, instead of attempting to do anything to change, interpret or move beyond those sensations in any way, they allow themselves simply to be with it?

The consensus seems to be that after we sit with things for a while, we discover something interesting.

First, the sensations begin to release their energy in the form of emotions. Perhaps at first there is only a trickle of feeling, but if we are able simply to be with the emotional energy, then that trickle may become a flow, a rush, even a flood. Next, come the thoughts – the plausible explanations, the labels, the stories we tell ourselves about these sensations and the emotional energy they carry.

The gift of fear

Behind my narrative of fear, I may experience a sensation deep in my gut – a rush of adrenaline, an increase of the flow of blood away from the skin and into my core musculature. Something intelligent in me is preparing me to face or flee a physical, emotional or spiritual challenge – whether the trigger for that response is obvious, or not consciously known.

The gift of anger

Behind my narrative of anger, I may experience a similar sensation in my gut, almost identical to fear, but which moves to a tension in my shoulders, neck and upper arms. There may be a sensation in my throat that wants to find expression as a roar or battle-cry. Something intelligent in me responds to the ‘fear’ sensations, by preparing me for an aggressive response – to fight whatever has triggered that fear.

The gift of sadness

Behind my narrative of sadness and loss, I may experience an ache in my chest, followed by a prickling behind my eyes. Something intelligent in me realises that something important is missing, or that some need is not being fulfilled in my life. It prepares me to move into a state of helplessness, potentially prompting others to nurture me and to fulfil my needs.

What a discovery!  Reframing our emotional narratives in this way doesn’t in any way negate the reality of the challenges or painful situations that give rise to these energies. However, it does open up a new and more life-giving narrative about our difficult emotions.

Rather than seeing them as an uncontrollable, self-destructive and possibly even dangerous enemy; we begin to experience them as an intelligent flow of energy and awareness, even a sacred gift from the deep essence and source of life. This in turn opens up the potential to develop more helpful and self-affirming responses to difficult situations.

I hope you enjoyed the article. If you want to explore some of these ideas further (and much, much more), then sign up for Unshakeable – confidence and an empowered life, a one day workshop Giles and I are co-facilitating on Saturday 20th May 2017 in Bath, UK.