Relating to Emotional Discomfort: the True Grit of Mindfulness

While I am not always perfect at it, I know that the biggest benefit of mindfulness practice is in its ability to help me hold emotional discomfort without bypassing it. When things are going well in our lives, mindfulness helps us deeply experience the pleasure of being alive. However, it is when the going gets rough that the true grit of mindfulness is brought to bear.

What Is Emotional Bypassing?

Emotional bypassing can happen when we do certain things to avoid, suppress, or escape from our discomfort. Ways that we bypass include the following:

1) Being overly optimistic. “Just be happy!” “Focus on the positive.” These types of phrases that we often see on social media can be hurtful and shaming when people are struggling with real difficulties in their lives. There are many times when being overly optimistic is a way of carefully avoiding discomfort.

2) Being positive too soon. I don’t want to give “being positive” a bad rap, but there is a time and place for everything. If the first response to difficulty isn’t an acknowledgement of the pain and suffering that you or others are experiencing, then you have jumped over an important step in processing pain. The pain will still be there and you will have to deal with it sooner or later. If you respond to another person with an attitude of “look on the bright side” before you acknowledge their pain, they will not feel seen or heard and your relationship will begin to feel disconnected.

My husband is a “very positive” person and, in the past, he would not acknowledge my pain in a situation before simply saying “It’s going to be okay.” I know he didn’t mean harm but I would really feel unmet and unloved. After asking him many times not to do this and why, he eventually understood. While it’s against his emotional makeup, he works hard at meeting me where I am first. Even knowing how unskillful this approach is, I lean into positivity and problem-solving quite a bit myself and have recently fallen into the same behavior as my husband. When it was pointed out to me, I was very grateful. My intention is to work hard at being with the pain of others first—letting them fully process their emotions and be seen. My strong desire is for others to be happy, but the way to that happiness is through the pain, not around it.

3) Blaming others. One way of avoiding responsibility for our discomfort is to engage in blaming the outside world –the culture, society, a gender, a person, the workplace, etc. While there may be lots of blame to spread around, your own emotions cannot be projected onto others without you eventually paying a price. Examine your own insides so that you can work on the discomfort directly. That is your only chance of understanding and processing it.

4) Engaging in behaviors that help you escape. While escaping can be a wonderful strategy to give you some space from discomfort (as I mention below), when these behaviors become your only go-to for feeling better, they can become a problem in themselves. For instance, turning to Facebook too often can eventually make you feel more disconnected emotionally. Turning to food too often can eventually end up with the body feeling overly full, sluggish, or even turn into an eating disorder. Turning to shopping too much can deplete your bank account. Turning to alcohol can lead to disconnection from yourself and others and even addiction.

I know it’s hard work to acknowledge your own and others’ pain, but it is sacred work you do for the wellbeing of everyone. It is really hard to sit with emotional pain, but we can learn how to develop a more intimate relationship with it just like we develop a muscle when we work out at the gym. Here are some practices that can help.

Practices to Help You Hold Discomfort.

1) Lovingkindness (or metta) practice. Lovingkindness practice is a method for wishing ourselves a deep sense of wellbeing and of offering it to others. You can find a BodyLovingKindness meditation on my website.

2) RAIN – Recognize, Allow, Investigate, and Non-identification. This practice for holding difficult emotions is used regularly by Tara Brach in her teachings. You can access a meditation by her here.

3) Mindfulness practice. Mindfulness asks us to hold our thoughts, emotions, and body sensations in our awareness without judgment—with kindness and curiosity. This practice alone can help us cultivate the ability to be with difficulty without running away from it. You can find many meditations on my website.

4) Self-care activities. Instead of being a way of bypassing, taking good care of yourself in nurturing ways can be a lovely way of showing yourself kindness. Acts of kindness like doing a yoga class, taking a warm bath with candles, or even getting your nails done can give you some space from the discomfort. In that space, you can build resilience and an ability to go back and feel the discomfort again. Moving in and out of the emotional feelings of anger, sadness, and loneliness can help build up our resilience.

5) Build up your emotional bank account. When you’re ready, engaging in activities that you enjoy and bring you delight will build up your emotional bank account. Then, when difficulties arise, you are more likely to be resilient and ride the waves of discomfort with more ease. Activities can be anything that is “just for you” and connect you with the passion of being alive.

Be your own best friend and the best friend of others by holding space for the discomfort that we are all facing in the world today. Remember that there has been so much suffering related to the pandemic layered on top of the already difficult world we navigate every day.

Be kind. Be curious. Be well.