How to deal with Dark Emotions

Within the “Full Catastrophe” that is life we all go through ups and downs – this is a reality that we must accept though at times it is very hard to.

This article provides a step by step process on how to deal with dark emotions – fully accepting the emotions that you are feeling and using them as a transforming agent in personal growth.

“Emotions like grief, fear and despair are as much a part of the human condition as love, awe and joy,” says author and psychotherapist Miriam Greenspan. “Each of these emotions is purposeful and useful—if we know how to listen to them.”

Unfortunately at times this is usually very hard to do. We’ve never been taught how to deal with our emotions and what the best approach to handling them is – usually our analyzing mind steps in and begins creating long story lines of how things should or shouldn’t be, judging yourself and judging the situation at hand.

What Western Science has found is that the analytical mind, is not only ineffective but even detrimental at times in helping heal deeply emotional situations – it simply creates divisions of the reality of what you are going through (should’s/shouldn’ts, rights/wrongs, past/future). This analysis is simply based on your memory of what has transpired in your life up until now, what you’ve seen, experienced, been taught, been through personally.

As sometimes this analyzing is very much needed – especially in our work and in developing the complex architecture and technology that surrounds us – when it comes to dealing with the present moment it simply takes us away from the presence needed to accept the Truth of what is happening. An unconditional acceptance of what you are feeling (one without judgement or conditions).

This unconditional acceptance or simple “Awareness” of your feelings of grief, fear and despair in the present moment is what can provide intense healing and personal growth. This is what “Eastern Science” has known for quite some time.

Below is a Summarized Powerful step-by-step approach provided by renowned author and psychotherapist Miriam Greenspan from to transform your Dark Emotions into deeply healing experiences.

Listening closely to Grief within her own work with clients and the loss of her first child she came to a transformational process that brought:

  • grief to gratitude
  • fear to joy
  • despair to faith
This transformation helped by dark emotions is a process that cannot be forced, but it can be encouraged by cultivating certain basic emotional skills.
The three basic skills are:
  1. attending to,
  2. befriending and
  3. surrendering to emotions that make us uncomfortable.

Attending to our dark emotions is not just noticing a feeling and then distancing ourselves from it. It’s about being mindful of emotions as bodily sensations and experiencing them fully.

Befriending emotion is how we extend our emotional attention spans. Once again, this is a body-friendly process—getting into the body, not away from it into our thoughts. At the least, it’s a process of becoming aware of how our thoughts both trigger emotions and take us away from them.

Surrender is not about letting go but about letting be.

When you are open to your heart’s pain and to your body’s experience of it, emotions flow in the direction of greater healing, balance and harmony.

Attending to, befriending and surrendering to:

Grief – we are surprised to discover a profound gratitude for life.

Fear, we find the courage to open to our vulnerability and we are released into the joy of knowing that we can live with and use our fear wisely.

Despair, we discover that we can look into the heart of darkness in ourselves and our world, and emerge with a more resilient faith in life.

Because we are all pretty much novices at this process, we need to discipline ourselves to be mindful and tolerant of the dark emotions. This is a chaotic, non-linear process, but I have broken it down to seven basic steps:

1) intention

2) affirmation

3) sensation

4) contextualization

5) the way of non-action

6) the way of action

7) the way of surrender.

1. Intention is the means by which the mind, heart and spirit are engaged and focused. Transforming the dark emotions begins when we set our intention on using our grief, fear and despair for the purpose of healing. It is helpful to ask yourself: What is my best intention with regard to the grief, fear and despair in my life? What would I want to learn or gain from this suffering?

2. Affirming their wisdom. This means changing the way we think about how we feel, and developing and cultivating a positive attitude toward challenging feelings.

3. Emotional intelligence is a bodily intelligence, so we have to know how to listen to our bodies. The step I call “sensation” includes knowing how to sense and name emotions as we experience them in the body. We need to become more familiar and friendly with the actual physical sensations of emotional energy.

How does your body feel when you are sad, fearful or despairing? What kinds of stories does your mind spin about these emotions? What happens when you simply observe these sensations and stories, without trying to understand, analyze or change anything?

4. Contextualization, we acquaint ourselves with the stories we usually tell ourselves about our emotional suffering, and then place them in a broader social, cultural, global or cosmic context. In enlarging our personal stories, we connect them to a larger story of grief, fear or despair in the world. This gets us out of the isolation and narcissism of our personal history, and opens us to transforming our suffering into compassion.

5. The way of non-action, is the skill that psychologists call “affect tolerance.” This step extends our ability to befriend the pain of the dark emotions in the body. When we can tolerate the pain of grief, fear and despair without acting prematurely to escape it, we are practicing the way of non-action. Again, it is helpful to meditate on your emotions with the intention of really listening to them. What does your grief, fear or despair ask of you? In meditation, listen to the answers that come from your heart, rather than from your analytic mind.

6. The dark emotions ask us to act in some way. While the way of non-action builds our tolerance for dark emotional energy, step six is about finding an action or set of actions that puts this energy to good use.

In the way of action, we act not in order to distract ourselves from emotion but in order to use its energy with the intention of transformation. The dark emotions call us to find the right action, to act with awareness and to observe the transformations that ensue, however subtle. Action can be strong medicine in times of trouble. If you are afraid, help someone who lives in fear. For example, volunteer at a battered women’s shelter. If you’re sad and lonely, work for the homeless. If you’re struggling with despair, volunteer at a hospice.

Get your hands dirty with the emotion that scares you.
This is one of the best ways to find hope in despair, to find connection in a shared grief and to discover the joy of working to create a less broken world.

7. The way of surrender, is the art of conscious emotional flow. Emotional flow is something that happens automatically when we know how to attend to and befriend our emotions. When we are in flow with emotion, the energy becomes transformative, opening us to unexpected vistas.

When we look deeply into the dark emotions in our lives, we find both the universality of suffering and how much suffering is unnecessary, the result of social inequities, oppression, large- scale violence and trauma. Our awareness both of the universality of suffering and of its socially created manifestations is critical to the healing journey. Knowing how our grief, fear and despair may be connected to larger emotional currents and social conditions de-pathologizes these emotions, allowing us to accept and tolerate them more fruitfully, and with more compassion for ourselves and others.

We begin to see the dark emotions as messengers, information-bearers and teachers, rather than “negative” energies we must subdue, tame or deny. We tend to think of our “negative” emotions as signs that there’s something wrong with us. But the deepest significance of the feelings is simply our shared human vulnerability.

When we know this, we begin to heal in a way that connects us rather than separates us from the world.

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