In general, I think that “why” is the most important question. I think that, if we are hoping to become more mindful, staying curious is one of the first things we do after taking a breath and giving ourselves space. If we can begin to understand why we react with anger or fear or defensiveness to particular situations, we can start to break those old patterns that keep us from living our values.
But sometimes, that space requires more than a breath or two. Sometimes, when our emotions are either incredibly intense or seem to come out of nowhere – like deep sadness and grief or body-shaking anger – the most important thing we can do is just stop. If we jump right in to asking why, we can create a situation where we feel the need to justify or deny our own emotions.
Why am I so sad? can lead to I shouldn’t be so sad. Nothing happened/it’s not that big a deal/my life is so great.
Why does this make me so angry? can lead to I’m over-reacting.
If we don’t take the time to let those very strong emotions wash over us, and we immediately begin spinning stories in our heads, we risk giving the emotion more time to do damage and creating a narrative that plays on a loop in our heads. We can think we’re being mindful, but what we are really doing is perpetuating the pain we feel.
So what do we do during that extra-long pause?
Short, concrete observations are incredibly helpful at disarming the intensity of emotions.
I am feeling really sad/angry right now. This seems overwhelming. I don’t want to be feeling this feeling. My chest is really tight and I feel like I might cry/scream.
Staying in the present and resisting the urge to explain or defend these emotions, while it seems silly, is a powerful tool. And recognizing that we feel like screaming or crying and letting ourselves do that is also a way to release some of the energy (although if you are around other people, I’d recommend screaming into a pillow or something else that muffles the sound – the last thing you want is for someone to come running to ask you what’s wrong because you end up going into explanation/defense mode).
If it feels like not all of the pressure or intensity is released by simply repeating descriptions of what you’re feeling, another helpful thing to add is this:
I won’t always feel like this. I feel like this now, but it won’t last.
If the feeling of sadness or anger persists or comes back over and over again for a period of hours or days, it is important to resist the urge to begin asking why. Instead, please seek help from a professional who can guide you slowly through what you’re feeling as you unravel the emotions. The more you try to dissect it yourself, the more likely you are to engage in self-talk that is harmful or negative. And, if you are considering self-harm or harming another person, please find help immediately.