Do you prefer crunchy or creamy peanut butter?
Believe it or not, our emotional experiences are a lot like peanut butter, no matter which kind you prefer.
You see when we feel emotions they don’t just show up by themselves, they come along with all sorts of things like:
- physical sensations
- other feelings
- urges to do a certain thing or to not do something
- and more!
Often all of these things are happening at once, and sometimes this big emotional experience can overwhelm us.
Think of when you scoop out peanut butter from the jar. It comes out in a big clump on the knife or the spoon, and if you aren’t careful you run the risk of tearing the bread apart as you try to spread it out. You cannot be rough with peanut butter, you have to be gentle and deliberate as you smooth it onto a slice of bread.
This gentle and deliberate smoothing allows you to consume it more easily.
In the same way, our own emotional experience can be gently and deliberately spread out so that we can handle it more easily and make more workable choices. On the other hand, if we are rough with our own thoughts, feelings, & memories—if we get caught up waging war with them, hating them, trying to eliminate them—it can make our own experience (and life!) that much harder.
Try this simple exercise to help you smooth out your emotional experience:
Sit or stand in a comfortable position, and gently turn your attention to your own body.
Notice any physical sensations you are feeling in this moment. Any tension, tightness, aches, throbbing, soreness or other feelings that might be there.
Once you’ve found at least one, name it by saying, “I notice that I am feeling _______________ in my [part of body].”
Next, take a regular sized breath and gently turn your attention to your mind. Notice how your mind is almost always producing thoughts. See if you can gently watch your own thoughts with a sense of curiosity as they flow by one after the other.
Once you’ve observed your thoughts flowing through your mind for a few seconds, name one or two thoughts by saying, “I notice that I am thinking _________________.”
Now, take a regular sized breath and gently turn your attention to what you are feeling inside. Take note of any emotions that you are feeling right here and now. Simply observe them again, with a sense of curiosity.
Once you’ve done that for a moment, name one or two of the emotions you’re feeling by saying, “I notice that I am feeling __________________.”
Take another regular sized breath, and shift your attention gently to any urges that are showing up for you. An urge can be an impulse to do something specific, or it can be an impulse to do nothing at all.
Once you’ve found any urge, name it by saying, “I am noticing the urge to ________________.”
If you were to follow along with this urge and actually do it, think about how it would work for you or against you. Would it add anything of value to your life? Would this choice be consistent with who and how you want to be? Would doing this be important to anyone else in your life?
If you were able to complete this exercise, what did you notice?
Smoothing out your emotional experience deliberately in this manner—checking in on your physical sensations, your thoughts, your feelings, and your urges, step by step—spreads out the impact of how we feel.
By practicing these smoothing out steps consistently you may notice yourself better able to handle intense emotional experiences.
If you often feel overwhelmed by your emotional experience, working together with a therapist can help you practice these skills and much more.