how to sit with your emotions

I wondered for so many years what it meant to sit with your emotions. Because that’s what people would always say was the way to get through emotional eating, and all I wanted was to stop doing it. But what in the world did it mean to “sit with” your emotions?

I’d try to sit down when I was wondering what there was to live for. I felt squirmy, uncomfortable and like I was doing it all wrong. I felt unbearably awful. What was the point of sitting there and dwelling on it? My mind looped predictably through the downward spiral as I frantically pounded against my mind’s concrete walls, desperate for a way out. Eventually, whipped into a frenzy by my thoughts, breathless with panic, I’d barrel toward an escape, whatever that meant on that particular day.

I did not comprehend the meaning of sitting with my emotions.

Thousands of days later, thousands of dollars spent on therapy later, thousands of pages of reading later, and many hundreds of meditation practices later, I get it. But I’m guessing that if the concept of sitting with emotions was hard for me to grasp, there are other people who don’t get it, either. Here’s how I do it.

To sit with your emotions, you must first of all sit down. Sitting, I should point out, is not required. You may stand, or you may lie down. Sitting works best for me, because it allows me to consciously relax my body while maintaining enough alertness to remember to stay focused and not fall asleep. You may sit with your feet on the floor, or with your legs crossed. In a chair with my feet on the floor is a favorite for me. Rest your hands on your lap, and close your eyes. Take a deep breath, allowing your belly to expand like a balloon, then allow the breath to completely exit your body. Then breathe in again.

Notice the spots on your body where you’re holding tension.

We all hold tension in our bodies differently, and it may be that your entire body is clenched tightly and has been for many years. This is okay. We start where we are. No matter how tightly you hold yourself, there is hope for you to relax and let go and feel better. If you can, allow the tightest spots you notice to consciously relax. If they don’t seem to want to relax, that’s okay. Let there be space for that tightness. You could even say to those particular parts of your body, “It’s okay for you to be tight. You don’t need to release your grip if you don’t want to.” There’s no need to fight against the tightness.

Notice any emotions that you’re feeling.

If you’re in the grips of a hard moment, you might feel panic, or sorrow, or fear. You may be unable to identify any emotions at all because your thoughts are so loud and insistent that you shouldn’t be sitting down right now, because you need to fix your problems right this minute, and sitting here isn’t going to achieve that.

Ask yourself how you know you’re feeling what you’re feeling.

Identify the actual physical sensations of the emotions. This might take a long time to do. It might be that you’re unable to identify the physical sensations until you’ve tried this exercise many times. That’s okay. Anything you feel is valid. Try to trust that you’re feeling your emotions in the way that’s right for you. There’s no wrong way to do this, and you don’t need to tell anyone else what you’re experiencing.

If you’ve been able to identify any of the physical sensations of your emotions, investigate them now.

Do you feel tightness, squeezing, heaviness, stabbing pain, an inability to breathe, or countless other sensations? Can you compare what you’re experiencing in your body to an image you get in your mind? Do the sensations have certain colors to them, or textures, or weights? Continue to investigate what’s happening within your body.

Whenever your mind wanders (or pounds) back to any insistent, panicked, frantic thoughts, refocus your mind on the sensations in your body.

Most likely, your mind will wander back to your thoughts very, very frequently. For me personally, unless I’m doing this exercise with another person, and depending on how upset I am when I do it, my mind wanders once or twice per second. Your work is not to keep your mind from wandering back to the thoughts.Your work is noticing that your mind is returning to the thoughts, and redirecting your focus, over and over and over again, to the physical sensations of the emotions in your body.

Now that you’ve hopefully been able to feel the sensations of the emotions in your body, allow those sensations to be there.

Our goal here is not to make those sensations go away. Quite the contrary: trying to make them go away will only intensify them and hurt us. Allow sensations of pain, allow sensations of tightness, allow sensations of heaviness. If it feels safe to do so, you can even invite the sensations to intensify (but only if it feels safe to you). If it feels hard to allow those sensations to be there, you might say to them, “You’re allowed to be there. You have space. I allow you to exist.” As you do this, the sensations you feel may change location, intensity, or shape. Continue to observe that, and continue to allow that.

Again, when your mind returns to panicked thoughts that are trying to solve your problems rationally, redirect your focus to the sensations of the emotions within your body.

Once you’ve practiced this for a few minutes, shift your focus back to your whole body. Notice where you’re sitting, what that feels like, where your hands are resting on your body. Notice any sounds taking place in the room around you, and outside the room you’re in. If you’re ready, you can gently open your eyes and take in your physical surroundings visually. Allow yourself time to return from your inner world. Perhaps take some more deep breaths.

And that is how you sit with your emotions. Sitting with your emotions refocuses us from the thoughts we have about our emotions and instead allows us to experience their essences. You can think and reason with your emotions all day long, but in my experience, you can’t fully move through them until you’ve felt them without the thoughts attached to them. The way you do this is by returning to the physical sensations of the emotions, and allowing them. This requires a faith that our problems won’t be solved by reasoning with them.

If you’re anything like me, you’ve tried to get rid of your emotions through reasoning for years, and it’s never worked. So you might try this, either by yourself or with the guidance of a teacher, coach or mental health practitioner who is familiar with somatic methods of working with emotions. The worst that will happen is that you’ll spend five minutes in frustration. The best that will happen is that you’ll discover a way to process your emotions that will allow you to step off the treadmill of pain on which you’ve been stuck.

Because I know everyone learns differently, here’s a video of me practicing this technique on myself. Join me if you like!

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