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Welcome to my island of sanity and serenity. I'm Sandra Pawula - writer, mindfulness teacher and advocate of ease. I help deep thinking, heart-centered people find greater ease — emotionally, mentally, and spiritually. Curious? Read On!

How to Free Yourself from Emotional Reactivity

How to Free Yourself from Emotional Reactivity

Do you get caught up in the same self-defeating emotional responses again and again?  

Whether it’s a tendency to anger, jealousy, low self-esteem, victimhood, or another seemingly built-in emotional response, these patterns usually feel intractable. 

You get triggered and wham, the same response kicks right in.  You get caught in your storyline and immediately turn on yourself with negative self-talk.  Or you blame the person who triggered you and impulsively jump on them. Either way, you strengthen the response so it will only cause you more problems in the future.

Would you like to break this damaging cycle of emotions? 

It takes courage, commitment, and self-awareness, but it’s definitely possible to release your emotional patterns. You can learn to catch yourself before your scripted response catches you.  As you do, you’ll gradually feel lighter and lighter and lighter. 

On a recent weekend retreat, Pema Chödrön shared several different ways to tame your emotional reactivity based on the book Emotional Rescue, How to Work with Emotions to Transform Hurt and Confusion Into Energy That Empowers You by Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche {affiliate link}.  Today, I’ll share one of these methods called “refraining” and summarize what she taught.

Catch Your Emotions Before They Catch You

The most fundamental way you can work with emotions is to refrain, which means to catch yourself and stop.  But as you do this, you don’t see emotions as “bad” or see yourself as “bad” for having testy emotions. In fact, when you know how to work with emotions, they become valuable stepping stones on your path of healing and transformation.   

Refraining has two aspects:

  1. Not acting out in words or actions.  
  2. Not escalating an emotional response.  You do this by interrupting the storyline.  

If you act out through thoughts, words, or actions - like arguing, screaming, hitting, or blaming (yourself or another person) - you’ll never get in touch wth the underlying feeling responsible for your pain.  And so, you’ll never be able to heal the original wound. 

You may truly believe that someone else has caused your emotions because our stories can be so strong, so convincing. 

But in truth you have a pre-existing propensity to respond in a certain way once you’re triggered. - for example, with anger, jealousy, an addictive craving, or with another emotion. That pre-existing propensity may have come about due to an early childhood experience or it may even come from an earlier time if you believe in rebirth.

Either way, you can only heal the original wound and dissolve the propensity by understanding and feeling your feelings rather than running away from them through acting them out.  

So when you catch yourself in the beginning or the middle of an emotional storm, you stop yourself from acting out any further with nasty words or hurtful behaviors.  

Secondly, you refrain from escalating the emotion.  You do this by cutting through or dropping the storyline.

You stop repeating, enhancing, and strengthening the story in your own mind or through repeating it to someone else.  You stop justifying your emotions and you stop blaming the other person.  Although you may have a stockpile of evidence against the person, some of which may be valid, at some point you have to decide whether you want to strengthen your habitual pattern or cut through it.

Refraining doesn’t mean denying or repressing you feelings.  In fact, feeling your feelings is the second step in the process of refraining.

Pema Chödrön says an interesting thing happens when you weaken a pre-existing propensity by learning to be present with it.  The outer situation begins to change.  For example, if you work with your tendency to anger, you’ll find that gradually people stop making you angry. The same holds for whatever emotional tendency you work with.

4 Steps to Refraining from Unhelpful Emotions

There are four steps in the process of refraining as taught by Pema Chödrön. 

The more you can work with these steps in meditation, the more you’ll be able to apply them in your life.  You can still use them in life, even if you don't meditate, but it will likely be harder to stabilize them.

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Step 1:  Recognize You’re Emotionally Hooked

The first step is to recognize you’ve been hooked by an emotion.

There’s a feeling that comes along when you’ve been hooked, caught, or activated by an emotional pattern.  Chödrön calls this “shenpa,” which is usually translated as “attachment.”   Shenpa underlies all emotions.

How does it feel when you’re hooked?  Start noticing.

Let’s say someone gives you a “look” and you immediately lose your confidence.  Or someone questions something you’ve said and anger or self-doubt rises. 

How does it feel in your body?  Does your stomach flutter, turn over, or burn?  Does your neck and face turn red?  Do you tighten or pull back?  Do you suddenly feel small?  Does your energy deflate? 

I remember a time when I would see an email arrive from a particular person and my stomach would turn over.  I didn’t even have to read it. What happens for you?

Start to notice exactly what you feel - emotionally and physically - when you’re hooked. These are your early warning signs. The ability to recognize when you’re hooked will give you the power to pause and respond differently.

Of course, you may be long into the story before you notice you’re hooked.   And that’s okay.  We’ve been repeating these patterns for eons.  Recognition takes time and practice.  The more you practice, the sooner you'll be able to catch yourself before the the emotion has gotten out of control.

Step 2: Feel What You Feel

Feel what you’re feeling with kindness.  Instead of acting out or repeating the storyline, feel what you’re feeling, feel the core feeling and observe how it might change into other feelings or dissolve altogether.

This means simply staying present to the feeling and however it manifests in your body.  Just noticing without adding to the story.

This may not be easy. You may have spent a lifetime avoiding a particular feeling - it’s too painful, too deep, too raw.  For example:

  • You’re not enough.
  • You’re fundamentally flawed.
  • You’ll be abandoned.
  • You’re unlovable.

When you begin to feel your feelings, you may enter painful, raw places.  No wonder why you’ve avoided them most of your life.  However, the only way to the other side is to feel them, gently at your own pace.  But if it’s too painful, go slowly and be extra kind to yourself.  Seek the help of a therapist if it fees like too much. 

So in this step you train in feeling what you feel with self-compassion, if only for a few moments at a time. 

The attitude of self-compassion is extremely important in your healing process. 

Be sure to reassure yourself that you’re okay, whatever you’re feeling -  angry, irritated, bored, envious, whatever the feeling might be.  Use non-verbal gestures like a hand on your heart to soothe yourself.  Know that you're worthy, whole, and perfectly okay. 

With practice, you’ll begin to realize you’re not this emotion and this emotion isn’t you. You’ll notice more space between you and your emotions.  You’ll come to know each emotion is just a passing feeling and no longer feel so averse to them.

Feel what you’re feeling, even if it’s only for a few moments at a time, because this is the path to healing.   With practice, you can learn to stay with an uncomfortable feeling a little longer, and then a little longer.  You’ll see how they dissolve on their own and they’ll slowly lose their power. Over time, you’ll become more patient, more tolerant, more kind, more forgiving of yourself.  

You can use your meditation time to practice feeling what you feel.  If you find it difficult at first, ask yourself questions like: 

  • How do I feel right now?
  • How does my body feel right now?
  • How do I feel emotionally.

You can start with your body if that feels easier.  Feel what you feel physically.  When you pay attention with tenderness to what you feel in your body, slowly your body will relax.  

Some people need support beyond meditation to be able to feel their feelings.  Methods like Focusing, Somatic Experiencing, and other body-based therapies can be a helpful complement to meditation or even a precursor to it.

It takes courage to feel what you’re feeling, but it will get easier with practice.

Step 3: Release the Story

The next step is to interrupt the storyline.  Of course, the storyline can be extremely convincing.  You might be telling yourself:

  • I’m so messed up
  • I’m a bad person
  • There’s something very wrong with me

Or you might be blaming the other person, completely embroiled in the story you’ve created about them.

Interrupting the story line is essential if you want to heal.  What will happen to your feeling if young longer fed the storyline?  It might take time, but gradually it will disappear.

You can practice interrupting the storyline in meditation. 

In Pema Chödron’s approach, you use the label “thinking” whenever you notice yourself engaged in the story.  You say “thinking” to yourself and remain open and fully present.  You don’t judge the thoughts, the story, or yourself.  You just know they take you away from being fully present and from feeling your feelings. 

Thoughts will carry you off again, you say "thinking" in your mind, and then you come back to the present moment once again.  You practice releasing the internal dialogue, again and again.  And with repeated practice, it starts to fall apart.

Step 4: Relax

Pema Chödrön says to relax and soften.  This stage of the practice is sometimes called letting go.    

From my own experience as a meditation teacher, I know that relaxation is essential part of meditation.  There's an intimate connection between the mind and body. It's easier for the mind to relax when the body's relaxed.  In the best meditation, you find a healthy balance of relaxation and alertness.

When you relax and let go, you come closer to your natural state of being.  You also reinforce the sense that everything is okay as it is, including you.

Give Yourself Time to Heal Your Emotions

It takes a lifetime to fully heal your emotional patterns.  But you'll feel better and better once you begin.  I've seen many people change dramatically after working with their emotions in meditation over the course of a year.  

With all the external dramas in my life over the past two years - from car accidents to sick kitties to lava eruptions and more - it feels like the universe has up-leveled my game.  I still get caught in my emotional dramas.  I still want to cling to my stories when a deep wound has been touched.  But I'm also able to release the stories and dramas more and more.

The more I see through my emotions, the more I sense an entirely different way of being.  It's difficult to describe what I sense in words - an openness and simplicity of mind, a feeling of being at ease whatever the situation, and a heart of great tenderness, for oneself and others.

This is where I'm headed.  This is why we work with our emotions.  At first, we may just want to feel better ourselves. But as we heal our own heart, we naturally feel the urge to extend our love, kindness, and compassion to others.

A very special thanks to Pema Chödrön for these teachings.  


Thank you for your presence, I know your time is precious!  Don’t forget to  sign up for Wild Arisings, my twice monthly letters from my heart filled with insights, inspiration, and ideas to help you connect with and live from your truest self. May you be happy, well, and safe – always.  With love, Sandra

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