What Processing Emotion Looks Like

We’re often told that it’s necessary to process our emotions in difficult situations, such as during a break-up, being let go from work, or becoming ill. It sounds reasonable, but we’re rarely told what this actually looks like in practice. Do we try to feel sad and force out some tears? Do we just allow ourselves to be angry and rage on a pillow?

Part of the reason it can be difficult to understand the concept of processing emotion is because it’s an experience – a feeling – and we can’t do it by thinking about it. In this post, I will break down into very simple terms what it looks like when we process emotions and allow ourselves to FEEL feelings.

The Importance of Processing Emotion

The reason our ability to process emotion is so important is that the alternative – suppressing emotion – has much higher consequences than simply feeling sad, scared, or angry. When we suppress emotional energy, stress builds in our body and eventually leads to mental difficulties, emotional outbursts, and physical illness.

We all know the stoic person who rarely shows emotion until they suddenly become furious for no apparent reason. In other cases, a person becomes scatter-brained, foggy, and their job is now in jeopardy because they haven’t fully processed an emotional setback. It’s also not uncommon for the same stress to lead to a heart attack at 45.

How We Suppress Emotions

Before we talk about processing emotions, it’s worth explaining how we might be suppressing them without even knowing it.

We consciously and unconsciously suppress emotions ALL of the time. Why? Because our modern world makes it really easy to avoid emotions we don’t like.

In any given moment, we have a number of quick pleasures within reach that allow us to temporarily avoid feeling negative emotions. We check our phone for notifications, browse social media, play a game, grab a snack (with an abnormal and addictive combination of fat, salt, and sugar), turn on Netflix, have a drink, etc.

When we’re in a heated conversation with someone close to us we avoid negative emotions by getting defensive, being critical, or flat out ignoring them. We cling to “I’m right” in order to avoid the feelings of being “wrong” or accepting that the other person is not behaving how we expect them to.

The “Process” of Processing Emotions

The phrase “processing emotion” is a bit deceiving, seeing as how there aren’t exactly a set of actions we need to take. Essentially, we’re just allowing the experience of an emotion.

This process has two simple components:
1. Relax
2. Release.


The process of relaxing and releasing starts with the body and extends to our minds. It’s how we let emotional energy flow through us and how we alter the source of that energy.

Relaxing

Since emotions are literally energy moving through the body, relaxing our physical body allows emotions to flow freely, and thus be “processed.” It is simply the act of allowing energy to move and flow the way it intends to.

The processing of emotional energy is common in yoga classes. This is due to the fact that yoga poses are designed to open up the body, bringing breath and energy into new spaces. The result is that many people experience emotions that have been blocked and suppressed for years, and it’s not uncommon for tears to start flowing unexpectedly.

Releasing

Releasing thoughts is how we alter the source of emotional energy. Many times, we cling tightly to the thought that something should be a certain way. He would do this if he really loved me. They should not treat others that way. This person is wrong. 

As stated previously, we often cling to these thoughts because we’re subconsciously suppressing certain feelings. Choosing to consider the other person as “right,” means we would have to experience the feelings associated with being “wrong.” I put right and wrong in quotes because this thought in and of itself – something is right and wrong, good and bad, fair and unfair – is one we frequently cling to.

One of the ways we release our thoughts is by observing them, also known as increasing our awareness. Understanding what we are thinking and where the thought originates is the first (and many times the only) step that enables us to release it. This is the process of becoming conscious.

I find that meditation and coaching are two of the most effective ways to practice observing our thoughts. Assessing our thoughts can be very difficult to do by ourselves and is one of the reasons coaching is so effective. Coaching gives us space to voice our thoughts and separate the facts from the story we’ve created.

Processing Emotion Simplified

Processing emotion is really that simple, and consists of two steps:

Physically relax. Perform a quick body scan. When I remind myself to relax during the day, my shoulders and face are usually contracted.

Mentally Release. Observe the thought that’s triggering your emotion and don’t try to resist it. Notice it is as a thought, and be curious about it.

The hardest part is remembering to practice this on a regular basis. Keeping this process simple – relax and release – enables us to remember and apply it in our daily lives.

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