4 Steps to Mindfully Work With Uncomfortable Experiences, Thoughts, and Emotions

I can’t tell you how many times, I have exhausted myself moving heaven and earth in an attempt to force a specific outcome that I thought was best.

In the past (and sometimes currently I’ll admit), I’ve spent way too many hours worrying and fretting about car repairs, health insurance, some comment someone made or their unexpected behavior, what the future holds, or whatever… you name it.

Sound familiar?

Uncomfortable Does Not Automatically Mean Bad

Even though I’m not always able to convince my mind of it at times, I’ve learned that if I just accept the circumstances as they are — even when I prefer them to be very different — and allow myself to move through the experience, let things unfold, and quit resisting, everything can turn out OK, great even, in the end. Just because something causes me discomfort or pain doesn’t automatically mean it’s bad.

Pema Chodron, an American Buddhist nun, in her book When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times writes:

We regard discomfort in any form as bad news. ….feelings like disappointment, embarrassment, irritation, resentment, anger, jealousy and fear instead of being bad news, are actually very clear moments that teach us where it is that we’re holding back. They teach us to perk up and lean in when we feel we’d rather collapse and back away. They’re like messengers that show us, with terrifying clarity, exactly where we are stuck. This very moment is the perfect teacher, and, lucky for us, it’s wherever we are.”

When something “bad” happens, I’ve learned to question my initial judgment of the situation. Nothing is good or bad by itself. Good and bad are determined by my unique thoughts, perspective, and brain.

Avoiding Discomfort Leads to a Numb Life

People stay in relationships in which they are miserable because they don’t want to be alone.  Many continue at jobs in which they are unhappy because it pays the bills. All too often, we stick to the safe path, inside our comfort zone, avoiding discomfort whenever possible. Living this way can lead to a numb life where a person feels like they’re just existing, sleepwalking through life.

In this type of fear-based existence, life becomes a marathon obstacle course of trying to avoid instead of trying to achieve. Trying to avoid pain. Trying to avoid loneliness. Trying to avoid failure. You can focus on and exert so much energy avoiding what you don’t want that little to no progress gets made towards what you do want. What you fear becomes the focus of your life instead of what you desire.

I know. I did it.

Unconsciously, avoidance can be the motivating factor behind much of our lives. Instead of thinking of how we want our lives to be and making decisions accordingly that may involve some risks and discomfort, too often, we make fear-based decisions which limit us and our happiness.  These fear-based choices may guide our actions and behavior in a direction which allows us to avoid that uncomfortable feeling, but which also doesn’t provide opportunities for growth or the achievement of our goals.

So we stay safe.  Stagnant. Unhappy in our comfort zones.

The Magic Happens Outside Your Comfort Zone

In the book, Taking the Leap: Freeing Ourselves from Old Habits and Fears, Pema Chodron likens this to living in a cocoon.  She writes:

We stay in our cocoon because we are afraid – we’re afraid of the feelings and reactions that life is going to trigger in us.  We’re afraid of what might come at us.  But if this avoidance strategy worked, then Buddha wouldn’t have needed to teach us anything, because our attempts to escape pain, which all living beings instinctively resort to,  would result in security, happiness and comfort, and there would be no problem.

She advises us to see these uncomfortable, fearful situations as opportunities rather than obstacles. She encourages us to “get comfortable with, begin to relax with, lean into whatever the experience may be.” She advises us to drop the knee-jerk reactions and storylines, to pause, breathe, and be present. Be awake and aware, be conscious and brutally honest with yourself about your intentions, reasons, and actions.

4 Steps to Mindfully Work With Uncomfortable Experiences, Thoughts, and EmotionsHow to Mindfully Work Through Discomfort

R.A.I.N. is an acronym developed by Michelle McDonald, a senior mindfulness teacher, describing four steps to work with uncomfortable experiences, thoughts, and emotions and expand self-awareness. RAIN stands for Recognition, Acceptance, Interest, and Non-Identification, the qualities that make up a moment of mindfulness.

Recognize 

Recognizing means consciously acknowledging, in the present, the thoughts, emotions, and behaviors that you are experiencing. Get in the habit of checking in with yourself several times throughout your day and become aware of and accept your thoughts and emotions without judgment.

This is practicing mindfulness. It’s recognizing what you are feeling and what’s happening at that moment — before you react in a routine way out of habit. It’s consciously taking a pause to consider and choose your response.

Acceptance

Stop fighting the circumstances, people, or yourself. Quit judging and “shoulding” yourself or others. It is what it is, and you feel what you feel. There’s nothing inherently good or bad or right or wrong about any of it. These qualities exist in your thoughts about what happens – not what’s actually happening. Acknowledge the experience just as it is, even if it’s unpleasant.

Actively try to extend compassion and kindness to yourself instead of criticism. Don’t add to the challenge of the situation by being hard on yourself. Acceptance means letting the thoughts, emotions, feelings, or sensations you have simply be there. It’s not the same as condoning or agreeing. It’s taking a step forward.

Interest

In this step, you adopt an attitude of interest, curiosity, and openness about the present situation. I’m not talking about performing an intellectual over-analysis. Here, you are asked to gently explore the circumstances and respond with a sense of tenderness and acceptance towards what you find. Stay open to all aspects of the experience and emotions — even the uncomfortable ones.

Challenge your thinking. Turn your thoughts and beliefs around and look at them objectively from all angles. Is this really what you think or is it just an inherited “should” from society or your past? What’s really behind what you are feeling? Are you making assumptions about others or events? What do you know to be absolutely true? Is your current thinking helping or hurting you?

Non-Identification

In non-identification, you stop thinking of the experience in terms of me or mine. You zoom out, drop the storylines and your personal emotional investment in the situation. The details — who did and said what — really don’t matter in the end and won’t help you get through it. They only serve to fuel your anger, hurt, and feelings of injustice.

Instead of identifying with the difficulty, you distance yourself from the details and focus on who you want to be, moving through the situation with a sense of peace, and what’s going to be in your highest good.

5 Comments

  1. Hi Debbie, I love this post as I relate so closely to the times I have done exactly as you have and still do at time- last weekend with an AirBNB booking! Crazy the time we waste on what we can’t control or change. I am going to read some of Pema’s work as i love the quotes you have used thank you xxx

  2. I find acronyms a great help in remembering points. So it’s great to learn about the R.A.I.N formula. Thanks for sharing!

  3. So true Debbie. I’m pretty good at practicing simply focusing on the ideal…but every now and then I admit to getting caught up in needing it all to turn out a particular way…forgetting that ideal means just that! 🙂

  4. We all need skills like these to help us move through challenging emotions, which are bound to come up because it’s impossible to stay in a cocoon all the time. It takes a lot of practice and commitment, but I think it’s the only way to go to lessen our suffering on the long run. Thanks for these empowering tips.

    • Thank you, Sandra. Having mental health tools and skills can make all the difference between happy and healthy or not! 🙂

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