If you’re experiencing “secondary emotions,” accepting them isn’t necessarily the best move, either. As Dr. Hu explains, “Primary emotions are the basic, natural emotions we all experience in response to various situations we encounter in life—happiness, sadness, surprise, disgust, fear, and anger—and secondary emotions come from us interpreting life in a negative way.” If your car gets broken into, for example, it’s totally normal to feel fear or anger and accepting those emotions might help you “clear mental bandwidth” so you can do what you need to do, such as filing a police report, Dr. Hu says. However, if you start feeling guilty and blaming yourself for the break-in (You shouldn’t have parked there, you idiot!), self-compassion might serve you better than doing nothing about the feeling (Sometimes bad things just happen, and I can’t control that. It doesn’t mean I’m stupid).
How can you start practicing emotional acceptance?
Practicing emotional acceptance isn’t a substitute for treating a mental health condition. But it is a common therapy tool—it’s a core part of acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) and mindfulness-based therapy, for example. And it has helped me feel a little bit better when dealing with everything from high anxiety to simmering rage to general unease. If you, too, struggle with uncomfortable feelings (of course you do, because you’re a human being) and want to experiment with accepting them, these are Dr. Hu’s best tips for getting started:
Think of your unwanted feelings as background noise.
“This metaphor can be really helpful with emotional acceptance, especially when you’re just starting out,” Dr. Hu says. “Try imagining your feelings like they’re playing on a radio station in the background. You can’t turn the radio off, but maybe you can let it just play softly in the distance while you focus on what you want to do.” This may sound easier said than done—especially if your tough emotions are metaphorically blasting at full volume—but thinking of your feelings as background noise can help you learn how to sit with them, she says: They’re there and you can’t change them, but in accepting that, you may find some distance and peace.
Take a little time every day to observe uncomfortable feelings.
Even on a good day, chances are you’ll experience some emotional discomfort—again, you’re human—and seeing what it feels like to accept that unease can help you train your acceptance muscle. When you notice that you’re feeling a bit irritated, frustrated, or sad throughout your day, “Take a breath, notice how you feel, and then let that feeling be—don’t try to make it go away, don’t try to distract yourself or force it to change into another feeling,” Dr. Hu says. “You’ll learn, over time, that while these feelings may seem scary at first, we are capable of tolerating them. We just have to give ourselves the opportunity to practice doing so.”
Recognize that no feeling lasts forever.
“The physiological changes in the body that happen when we experience a particular negative emotion don’t last very long—only for about 90 seconds,” Dr. Hu says. “Anything that persists means, subconsciously or not, we’re likely feeding the uncomfortable feeling ourselves by ruminating or fueling it with those negative secondary emotions.” That’s why it can be helpful to “remind yourself that you can do anything for 90 seconds, including sitting with an uncomfortable feeling,” she says. The 90-second rule isn’t a hard-and-fast one, but even if your negative emotion lasts longer than that, she says, it won’t last forever—and this mindset can make it easier to accept.
I haven’t perfected this practice yet—not even close—but I have found that acknowledging and accepting my feelings can sometimes take the emotional edge off, which is a big deal in my world. “This, too, shall pass” is a cliché for a reason, and you may discover that whatever tough feelings you’re dealing with pass all the more quickly if you choose not to push them away.
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