The Upside to Embracing Dark Emotions

If there are two things we can count on in life besides death and taxes, it’s stress and pain. Stress and pain often manifest as difficult emotions such as sadness, anger, fear, shame, guilt, among others. When these come up the brain says, “Yikes, how do we fix this” and looks to the past to anticipate the future. Jerry Duvinsky, Ph.D is a Psychologist who wrote a recent book called How To Lose Control And Gain Emotional Freedom: Embracing the “Dark” Emotions Through Integrative Mindful Exposure, based on how to work with these, at times, challenging feelings that visit us day in and day out.

In the book he says:

It has been said, “The role of a therapy is not to make people feel better, but to help people better feel.”

What a beautiful representation of what a growing number of clinicians are recognizing about the role of therapy. It comes as quite a revelation, and often one difficult to accept, to contemplate the reality that emotions, no matter how painful and powerful, whether they be grief, anger, despair, helplessness, or loneliness, are not inherently bad, evil, dangerous, or wrong. Certainly, they can be uncomfortable, powerful, and at times rather inconvenient. But in fact, it is our conditioned fear and shame that teach us that these emotions are dangerous and in all ways “bad” and that therefore, they are in need of control. But in fact, it is our learned attempts to control our “dangerous” emotions that produce much deeper and more insidious problems. We spend so much of our time and energy running from painful feelings and experiences.”

He’s exactly right. It’s the brain’s embedded programming that in the face of discomfort, snaps in the direction of avoidance which can ultimately keep the difficulty around or exacerbate it. No one ever heals their fear of heights or snakes without at some point confronting them. So it is with the difficulties we have in life, but the question is how do we do this?

In a recent blog post he offered a mindful technique called emotional surfing:

The key elements of emotional surfing are fourfold:

1) Focus upon and hold a painful image, memory, thought or feeling.

2) Label as specifically as possible the feeling(s) that arise.

3) Take note and hold your attention at the bodily area from where the present feelings emanate.

4) Pay careful attention to how the emotions, images, and physical sensations change and move as you maintain focus.

Caution – Not everyone can do this on their own. Some may require the perceived safety and support of doing this in a therapeutic context. If one has a history of psychotic symptoms or has difficulty at times differentiating their internal reality, from external reality, than guidance and supervision may be advisable.

In this work we ask people to dip their toes in the emotion. Like Jerry said, you may want to get additional support, but if you feel safe, try it out with smaller emotions like annoyances, frustrations, boredom, or low level stress. The idea is to give your brain the experience of exposure to the feeling. But we don’t just wanted blank exposure, it’s best if we can tinge it with a flavor that breathes of kindness, warmth and compassion. The kind of attention we might give to a child in pain.

The brain needs to learn that you can approach what’s difficult with care and that things will be okay.

In time this lays the path to greater emotional freedom and a wiser heart.

As always, please share your thoughts, stories and questions below. Your interaction creates a living wisdom for us all to benefit from.

Reposted from Elisha Goldstein’s Mindfulness Blog on

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