My 5 step process for navigating challenging or negative emotions

January 12,2021

I’m a hypocrite.

I sat down to write this week’s blog post, and very quickly got stuck. 

Today’s blog post is about the importance of staying present with your emotions. I wanted to start by sharing a personal story with you, but I just couldn’t think of a good one. I tried out a number of options, but none of them felt right. I started getting more and more frustrated. 

Xander came into the room and asked me how I was doing. I grumpily responded that I was stuck. He asked me really kind and gentle questions about my feelings, but I just gave short answers. He asked me if I wanted to vent or if I wanted him to help me problem solve, and I curtly responded, “I don’t want anything. You’re asking me questions and I’m answering them.” I was not pleasant to be around!

This went on for longer than I care to admit, but finally, I burst into laughter. 

“I know what my story is,” I told Xander.

“Oh yeah?” He responded, looking confused about my rapid change in attitude.

“I was trying to write about being present with your emotions, but I was resisting the hell out of being present with mine!” 

Yes, my friend, I am a hypocrite! I didn’t do a very good job practicing what I’m trying to preach to you today! 

I just have to laugh and remind myself that we’re all works in progress! 

So let’s talk about being present with your emotions. 

A lot of us have overly positive associations with the idea of being present. If you recall, last week I said one of the biggest misconceptions about presence is thinking you have to be zen or optimistic in order to be present. 

But in reality, presence is all about tolerating emotion. Your emotions and other people’s emotions. And emotions aren’t always positive!

So today I want to talk about how to be present with challenging emotions. 

First, let’s address the big question you may be thinking right now…

Why do we need to be present with the tough stuff?

Earlier today, I did NOT want to be present with my cranky mood. 

But one of the best things I ever learned about emotions is this:

The only way out is through. 

(Credit to Robert Frost!)

As much as you may want to, you can’t hide from your painful or negative experiences and emotions. 

You can’t run from them. 

You can’t ignore them. 

Your feelings will catch up to you sooner or later. And they’ll probably feel even worse by the time they do.

The only way to get out of your feelings is to feel them. 

But this is super challenging! I’ve been professionally trained in feeling my feelings, and I still struggle with it to this very day!

So let me share with you…

My 5 step process for navigating tough emotions

Step 1: Be curious

Like I mentioned up above, it’s really easy for us to want to avoid or run from our emotions. 

Instead, I recommend that you lean into them. 

See if you can be curious about what you’re actually feeling. Ask yourself, “What’s going on for me?” or “What’s here right now?”

Personally, I love thinking about the word “curiosity” because it feels playful and light to me. I can be curious about something even if I don’t like it. 

Step 2: Observe

Next, take some time to notice what comes up for you.

I like focusing on my body, and paying attention to what sensations I’m feeling. 

Do you feel hot? Heavy? Does your chest feel tight? Are your hands balled into fists? 

What’s that like for you?

Don’t put pressure on yourself to perfectly identify exactly what you’re feeling, or even put it into words. It can be shockingly hard to identify what you’re feeling at times! That’s why I like focusing on bodily sensations instead of intellectual understanding. 

I also use the word “observe” because it implies a certain detachment. You’re paying attention to what you’re experiencing, without judging it. 

Step 3: Give permission

This step is a really tricky one! 

Most of the time, we don’t want to be feeling negative emotions. You might feel guilty or ashamed about, or even scared of, the feelings that are coming up for you. 

Whatever it is that you’re noticing, try to give yourself permission to feel it. 

Imagine you told your partner you were feeling sad, and they told you, “Don’t feel sad” or “There’s nothing to feel sad about.” Did your partner telling you not to feel the way you felt actually change your feelings? Hell no! So the point here is to not do the same thing to yourself. 

Remember, presence is about being able to accept an emotion or experience, even if it’s a negative or unpleasant one. So try your best to give permission to your feelings, even if you don’t agree with them, like them, or want to be feeling them. 

You can even say the words to yourself: “I give myself permission to feel X.” or “It’s OK to feel Y.”

Step 4: Sit with it

OK, this is another tricky one too. The next step is to simply sit with the feelings. 

Imagine you’re just keeping your feelings company. Hanging out together, quietly soaking up each other’s presence.

All that feelings really need is time and company. 

If you give them that, I promise even the most painful emotion will start to fade. 

Step 5: See if there’s anything you need

A lot of us – myself included – feel the temptation to DO something with our feelings, but there’s not always something we can do! 

That being said, you may notice a need start to arise as you sit with your feelings. 

Maybe you want to call a friend and vent about it with them. Maybe you want to call your mom and get her advice. Maybe you want to share your feelings with your partner, and ask them to sit with your feelings with you. 

Just gently ask yourself, “OK, is there anything I need here?”


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I'm Vanessa Marin, a sex therapist and writer specializing in helping you have more fun in the bedroom.

I have bachelor’s degrees in human sexuality and sociology from Brown University, and a master’s degree in counseling psychology from the California Institute of Integral Studies. I’m also a licensed psychotherapist. I’ve been working in the sex therapy field since 2002 and have been featured by The New York Times, O: The Oprah Magazine, Real Simple, and many more.

If you’re interested in improving your sex life, you can work with me via my online courses or personal coaching sessions. I look forward to supporting you in creating the sex life you’ve always wanted!