Eight Step Method to Manage Intense Emotion

Recently I received this request from a reader:

What I have found lacking is books or articles on the process of revealing my feelings, the associated pain, and some kind of plan to work through the feelings that would help DURING the healing process. Knowing the common steps of healing would be very encouraging and provide both patience and hope.

When you push your feelings down as a child in order to cope with an environment that cannot tolerate them (Childhood Emotional Neglect), you grow up lacking access to your emotions. A large part of the process of healing involves breaking down the wall between yourself and your feelings and welcoming them.

But what if many of those old feelings are painful? What if the process is so painful that it’s too hard to let the wall down? What if you lack the skills needed to cope with the pain because no one ever taught you?

Managing painful feelings happens on Two Levels:

  1. In the Moment: Coping
  2. The Long-Term: Resolving

Next week’s article will be about Level 2: Long-Term Resolving. So check back!

8 Steps for Coping With A Difficult Emotion

  1. Sitting with the feeling is Step One toward processing it. So fight the natural urge to escape it. Take a deep breath, and set a goal to sit with it.
  2. Putting words to the feeling is Step Two toward processing it. So try to identify the feeling while you’re feeling it. Give it a name. Or, since most powerful feelings are a mixture of multiple ones, several names. For example, hurt, damaged, helpless, and hopeless.
  3. Remind yourself that this feeling is only just that: a feeling. It’s your body telling you something. Don’t give the feeling too much power, yet listen to what the feeling might be telling you.
  4. Let your tears out. (This applies to you too, men.) All of the above steps work best when you don’t hold back. Tears are your friend in this process, not your enemy.
  5. Recognize that no feeling lasts forever. And the best way to get a strong emotion to pass is to accept it. If you fight or escape it, it will keep its power over you.
  6. Picture the feeling as a wave washing over you. You are not running away from the wave or swimming into it. You are sitting and letting it run its course.
  7. Use your breathing to help you. Close your mind inward and focus on your breathing. Say to yourself with your inner voice (while continuing to welcome the painful feeling):  As you inhale, you are breathing in strength, resolve, and clarity. You are building your ability to tolerate this strong feeling that you are having. Keep repeating it over and over.
  8. Most intense emotions need to be felt more than once and processed before they go away. After you have sat with the emotion, when you feel it lessening, it’s OK to put it aside and distract yourself out of it. But know that you will likely need to welcome it back again. 

Each time you welcome, sit with and process an intense emotion, you are breaking through the wall that was set up in your childhood. You are taking an old, simmering emotion that had power over you from underground, and you are taking control of it. By owning it and listening to your feeling, you are owning and listening to yourself. You are giving yourself something vital, powerful, and meaningful that you did not get as a child: emotional acceptance and validation.

Truly, there is nothing more courageous than that.

Growing up with Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN) can be difficult to remember. Yet it leaves its mark on you. To find out if you are living with CEN, Take The Emotional Neglect Questionnaire. It’s free.

To learn more about Childhood Emotional Neglect, see my first book Running on Empty. 

Jonice

Click Here to Leave a Comment Below
L. - December 13, 2021 Reply

Thank you! I didnt not know about #8.

Stephen - December 13, 2021 Reply

One of my biggest issues with expressing and feeling emotions is that if I am with someone else I feel very silly or dramatic or just self conscious in general. My parents were prone to uncontrolled emotional outbursts of screaming and crying and I associate any emotion with an extreme reaction, and I know this is wrong but I think: how could the person being “emotional” be so selfish and manipulative to the people around them to try to make others feel a certain way? Like when I was a kid and my parents would guilt trip me, or be passive aggressive etc. Just trying to emotionally manipulate me. Meanwhile, as a kid I walked on eggshells around my them. I think I am an empath so I was strongly affected by my parents emotional states, and they were divorced and not remarried and I was the oldest so I think I became enmeshed with both. Now as an adult I keep everything to myself and people often tell me they can’t read me. I think that’s a positive thing because I’m not emotionally imposing on anyone like my parents did, but instead my friends or partners think I’m aloof, reserved, untrusting, and kinda boring and it limits my relationships. I generally have a calm and even demeanor and I am a good problem solver so people usually come to me for advice, but the irony is I barely have it together and the few times I have opened up to others, what I say to them is usually such a shock they don’t know what to say because they can’t relate to the neglect, sadness and loss in the same way, and I kinda freak them out…

    Jonice - December 14, 2021 Reply

    Dear Stephen, you are caught in the CEN trap, where your CEN tells you it’s wrong to share feelings and problems, but you very much need to do so. It’s so important for you to share your whole story with a CEN-trained therapist. I encourage you to check my list of therapists under the HELP tab of this website. If you can’t find one near you, then ask your primary care doctor for a referral. It can make a tremendous difference for you.

June - December 12, 2021 Reply

Wonderful advice! Thank you so much for your help!

Maria - December 12, 2021 Reply

Dear Jonice

You write that one should resist the urge to try to escape from the intense emotion.

Yet I have noticed, that ‘something’ seems to ‘move in’ between me and the emotion, so that it is almost impossible to feel it. This is especially true for grieve.

In my life, when I lost a love connection, when someone left me, it was almost impossible to encounter what I call ‘pure grieve’ – meaning: the honest and heartFELT process of mourning the loss of someone I loved without analysis, reflection or (self)blame.

As soon as my body would get ready to cry and give in to the emotion of sorrow, a feeling of shame and disgust would ‘move in’ between the sorrow and me. And this feeling of shame seems to be about me not being worthy of sorrow – because it was my own fault that they left, because I am unlovable, wrong, not good enough.

It is almost as if something within me says: “You don’t have the right to grieve, because you are the reason they left in the first place!” – and that would somehow turn sorrow into something painfully shameful.

Imagine, you cannot feel a loss without simultaneously feeling an intense amount of shame – because your ‘being unlovable’ caused the loss.

Perhaps people suppress their emotions because of THAT: an accompanying feeling of being altogether WRONG, and that’s why they experience unpleasant feelings in the first place!

It is an entirely different thing to feel ‘pure grieve’ – because when you let yourself feel the sorrow WITHOUT self blame, then you are actually compassionate with yourself. Your letting go into sorrow, without self blame, is an act of self love. Like you are saying:

“You have the right to mourn the loss of this person in your life, even if you are not perfect and not always loving. You are still a good enough human being to have the right to feel sorry for yourself when you lose someone you love.”

Once I realized the difference between ‘shameful grieving’ (which is never resolved) and ‘pure grieving’ where your tears are actually healing you, it became clear that I had to consciously ALLOW myself to grieve. And, I suppose, this is what you mean by giving ourselves emotional validation as adults.

Just a few thoughts. Thank you for your healing work.

Best of wishes,
Maria

    Jonice - December 12, 2021 Reply

    Dear Maria, you describe in your own words what it feels like to have a wall and what it feels like when you break through your wall and allow yourself to feel. Thank you so much for sharing this. I think it will help many.

Jill - December 12, 2021 Reply

Your articles are so helpful. I never knew how to describe the problem. Thank you.

    Jonice - December 12, 2021 Reply

    I’m so glad to hear that, Jill.

Giang - September 23, 2021 Reply

Dear Dr Jonicewebb,

This and the earlier articles are wonderful in dealing with pains. Thks a lot.

Stéphane - February 15, 2021 Reply

Hi Jonice.

Where I can find this article Level 2: Long-Term Resolving. The next article of 1. In the Moment: Coping

    Jonice - February 15, 2021 Reply

    I’m afraid it hasn’t been posted on my website yet. I will be in the near future. Sorry about that!

      Stéphane - February 21, 2021 Reply

      I’m grateful, thank you! I also bought your book and read your post and i found it very helpful i really appreciated.

Vanessa - January 29, 2021 Reply

Thank you for those 8 steps. So helpful. I just read the word “disengaged”. That’s been me my whole life. What is your advise when experiencing these strong feelings happens in the workplace? A social situation? I’ve pushed it down at that time not wanting to feel it at its full strength so as to not make a “scene”, for want of a better word, or more likely not wanting embarrass myself. Is it a matter of when you are in private later on to bring the scenario back up and do the 8 steps? I’m assuming once the 8 steps become the ‘norm’ that things get processed much quicker. 🙂

    Jonice - January 31, 2021 Reply

    Dear Vanessa, yes the steps do go much faster once you have done them over and over. It’s a matter of practice.

Liz - January 28, 2021 Reply

Sandi and Hannah y’all are grown now with a grown ups vocabulary you can figure out what word you’re feeling!!! You’ll get close if not the exact
one.

    B - January 30, 2021 Reply

    What a horribly unhelpful comment! Sandi, Hannah and anyone else out there – please don’t pay this any attention. I think it’s really brave to admit we don’t know how to talk about our emotions 🙂

Clare - January 26, 2021 Reply

This is SO helpful. I have noticed I have a very intense feeling of anger when I feel I am not listened to by my husband. I know underlying this is a profound sadness of worthlessness. In the past I’m ashamed to say this has caused me to lash out at my husband which causes him to disengage further. I am going to try and pause and sit with this overwhelming feeling and see it as just that, not as an indicator of my worth. Looking forward to seeing how I get on

    Jonice - January 27, 2021 Reply

    Excellent plan, Clare, Also try to figure out what this feeling means. Where does it come from? Sitting with the feeling is the beginning of processing it.

Teri - January 25, 2021 Reply

I have been to therapist that brought this to my attention- and all I could think of was “what is the point of knowing that I am freaking out”?
I thought that my ability to ignore my emotions and needs was a strength and coping mechanism that was helping me to survive. But I’m trying to figure out how to manage my emotions and needs now and it’s very hard to learn how.

    Jonice - January 26, 2021 Reply

    That’s a great turn-about, Teri. You are on a healthier path now and will become much stronger, I assure you.

Cheryl - January 24, 2021 Reply

What if you are dealing with cen and are taking care of your elderly parent who has no idea of it? What is the best way to overcome feelings of resentment?

Gill - January 24, 2021 Reply

I’m working through intense feelings following the sudden death of my husband by suicide. I’m fighting off blame, but generally overwhelmed by everything. My early life prepared me for none of this.

    Jonice - January 25, 2021 Reply

    Dear Gill, I am so very sorry for what you are going through. I encourage you to get yourself a therapist to support you through this very difficult time. And I hope you will use the techniques here to manage your feelings. Please be sure to read my blog on grief and guilt/blame it’s right here on this website.

Sarah - January 24, 2021 Reply

What if you just go straight into problem solving? I can’t seem to access the feelings when they happen

    Jonice - January 24, 2021 Reply

    It’s important to keep working on feeling the feeling. if you know you’re having it, then you must be able to feel it. Keep working at it.

Russ - January 24, 2021 Reply

Thank you for this wonderful practical advice.

    Jonice - January 24, 2021 Reply

    You are welcome, Russ!

Gina - January 24, 2021 Reply

This is really helpful and is something I am trying to do. My issue with with huge waves of anxiety which I think I have tended to try and solve and fix. It is triggered by something in the present day and I then ruminate and obsess about it and I feel more and more anxiety about the ‘right’ thing to do. I think a lot of this is driven by my childhood experiences. I think behind my anxiety are a lot of feelings and I do agree there are many different one. It feel hard to unpack it all as it can be all tangled up. I have this urgency that I need to do something so sitting and just being with it feels like the opposite of what I need to do, however I know what you have said makes sense. I wish I had someone who could sit with me and tolerate how I am and be a calm presence. I have not found that yet. I will try and sit with it myself . It is hard when as a child you had no-one there to help regulate things and you did not have safety. Thank-you

    Jonice - January 24, 2021 Reply

    Dear Gina, a CEN therapist will sit with you through your anxiety. Sitting through it will be the key to taking control of it. If the anxiety is so severe that you are unable to do this, you could consider consulting a psychopharm dr. and be evaluated for medication. Some anxiety is biologically based and calls for medication. But it definitely makes sense to try sitting with it and working it out that way first.

Julianne - January 24, 2021 Reply

Sandy,
That is a great question, one that I struggled with also.
When I need to identify an emotion, I can read through the list to see which one fits. I hope this is helpful to you too.

Grace - January 24, 2021 Reply

This makes so much sense! Going to try this. Thanks so very much Jonice ❤️

    Jonice - January 24, 2021 Reply

    Excellent! You are welcome, Grace.

Jess - January 24, 2021 Reply

Thank you that helped x

Jean - January 24, 2021 Reply

And then Nurture,
Find a way to be kind and loving to yourself. Hug a warm soft cushion, think of someone who has been kind to you, or even invent someone, human or a loving pet.

    Jonice - January 24, 2021 Reply

    Excellent suggestions. thank you, Jean!

Louise - January 24, 2021 Reply

Thank you for this it is perfect. I’m trying to resolve a chronic pain issue which I’m sure is due to repressed emotions due to CEN. Have been working through feelings slowly but a step by step is great to have in the tool box:)

    Jonice - January 24, 2021 Reply

    I’m so glad, Louise. These are skills to last a lifetime. Keep working on it!

Sandy - August 25, 2017 Reply

What if you can’t identify the feelings? What if I don’t have the words to describe the feelings? All of my feelings were denied.

    hannah - January 24, 2021 Reply

    Sandy, I’ve got the same issue; what I’ve found helpful is finding (online) feelings sheets/wheels. there’s different versions; a list of feeling words to choose from or, a wheel that coordinates feelings into different strengths (like irritation, anger, rage). I’d love to know if Jonice has any further suggestions, though (this is kind of an old post).

      Jonice - January 24, 2021 Reply

      I have a massive list of feeling words in the back of Running On Empty for that very reason. I hope you find it helpful, Sandy and Hannah!

Julie - August 25, 2017 Reply

This is actually really helpful 🙂

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