When do you usually use the word “difficult”? In what context? Do you use it to describe something you excel in or something you struggle with? The question’s rhetorical, and the answer is obvious!
If “difficult feelings” had been introduced to us in kindergarten, we’d not be calling these emotions “difficult” for we would have understood them and possibly gained some level of “mastery” in them.
Worry not, Depth Seekers is here to fill in this most crucial gap in our education system – scratch that – in our system! We’ll look at what difficult emotions are, the different difficult feelings, and how to work with them effectively.
Different people have different views on the number, and the emotions, that make it to the 8 difficult feelings list! For instance, according to Dr. J. Rosenberg, there are 8 difficult feelings – sadness, helplessness, vulnerability, disappointment, shame, anger, embarrassment, and frustration. According to His Holiness the Dalai Lama, “Anger, hatred, fear are destructive emotions that destroy inner peace”. I believe, there is one root emotion – fear, and multiple difficult emotions based on an individual’s context.
What Is A Difficult Emotion?
Frankly, any emotion that you’re unable to embody, experience, express, and process fully, is a difficult emotion for you. Let’s break that down.
Have you ever come across someone you feel isn’t able to feel happiness? Or someone who rarely ever smiles? Or someone who seems very rigid about everything in life? Those are the people who find happiness, or joy, difficult.
A difficult emotion isn’t really about the emotion but about your relationship with it.
Your relationship with emotions hugely rests on the kind of life experiences you’ve had, and whether or not in those life experiences you had the resources to feel and be safe.
Complex PTSD (C-PTSD) can make it hard to manage emotions and (healthy) relationships.
Pete Walker specializes in helping adults who were traumatized in childhood, especially those whose repeated exposure to abuse and/or neglect left them with the symptoms of Complex PTSD.
His book, Complex PTSD: From Surviving to Thriving: A Guide and Map for Recovering from Childhood Trauma has been exceptionally rated (on Amazon) by people who have/ had C-PTSD.
Now, what does it mean to embody, experience, express, & process fully?
All emotions are felt in the body in the form of different sensations. For example, when you’re joyous, you might feel a sense of lightness and if you were to observe your chest it would feel spacious like you can breathe more!
On the other hand, when you’re sad, you might notice a sense of heaviness, and your chest might feel tight, or may even ache just a tad.
This is the emotion in your body. Embodying the emotion is fully embracing its presence in your body instead of avoiding or trying to get rid of it.
As you embody, you allow yourself to experience the joyousness of joy and the sadness of sad.
As you experience it, you allow yourself to express it in whatever way works for you – journal, write a poem, go for a run, dance, take a bath – whatever works for you (provided you’ve done the first two steps of embodiment & experience, otherwise it might just aid avoidance).
To process it fully you need to let it take its course, and also be discerning in allowing it to leave when its course is complete. This is a stage many get stuck in – we’ll talk more about this later.
Who Says There Are 8 Specific Difficult Emotions?
Exactly! Who says? Dr. Rosenberg found a set of 8. Sure. I’m no one to argue with her findings. However, her finding is limited to her research subjects & their contexts (their culture, upbringing, family dynamics, intergenerational narratives, etc.).
Also, I don’t concur with her list of the 8 emotions. There are other emotions that are, generally speaking, more difficult for most people, than the ones on her list. More on that later!
The One Root Emotion
I believe there is one, and only one, root emotion or feeling: the emotion of fear.
Let’s see why I think this to be the case.
Rosenberg says there are 8 difficult emotions: sadness, helplessness, vulnerability, disappointment, shame, anger, embarrassment, and frustration. The Dalai Lama calls anger, hatred, & fear destructive emotions.
If we combine these two groups of difficult/ destructive emotions, we get 10 distinct emotions/ feelings, including fear. Since I’m stating fear to be the root emotion, we’re left with 9.
Let’s start with anger. The reason I feel angry is that at some level I believe something of mine will be/ is being taken away from me (it could be material, or not – like my “self-esteem”).
I may not be afraid of the circumstances of my actions to ensure this thing of mine doesn’t get taken away from me, however, I fear that it will be taken away, and thus, I choose to (re)act with anger.
Vulnerability, embarrassment, & shame – while they all represent different intensities – they’re all coming from the same space – the fear of what others (will) think of me, or at times, the fear of what this (my action) makes me in my own eyes (which, by the way, is conditioned by the society, a.k.a., the others).
Frustration and helplessness are on the same continuum as anger. If you think about it, frustration is that point from where two roads diverge – one leading to helplessness, and the other to anger!
Disappointment is a by-lane somewhere around frustration and helplessness – in my opinion, closer to helplessness.
That leaves us with sadness. Now, sadness is more complex, I believe. I can be sad because I’m disappointed, or because I feel helpless, or because I’m grieving a loss.
In my experience, both first & secondhand, sadness is usually a response to some other emotion(s).
What Makes An Emotion Difficult?
This is a two-pronged answer:
One, that makes the emotion difficult is the mind believing, “This is bad, it’s not good, I shouldn’t feel it, I don’t want it” – the mind makes it difficult by re-telling itself that it’s difficult.
Two, the sensations that some emotions create, feel unpleasant to the body, and when that happens the mind doesn’t want to feel them.
Fear causes the body to contract, thereby, your muscles might tighten, or even twitch, or you might feel a rush of (unpleasant) heat, or your stomach might get nauseous, or all these and some other sensations together!
Why does this happen?
According to researchers, when an emotion is triggered, chemicals are released that flush through our bloodstream, activating bodily “sensations”. They say it’s a biochemical rush!
When pleasant sensations get activated we want more of them, thus, we want to always be happy (or something like that)!
And when unpleasant sensations get activated we freak out!
This freaking out when experiencing unpleasant sensations is what makes these feelings difficult.
What Are The Different Unpleasant Feelings?
As discussed earlier in the article, different feelings can seem difficult to different people. However, some feelings create more unpleasant sensations than other feelings, for most people.
10 Unpleasant Feelings
Here’s my list of 10 Unpleasant Feelings, including fear:
Please note that this is not an exhaustive list and that your experience may be different from this. If it is, I want you to know that whatever your experience is, it’s valid. All that you’re feeling is valid.
However, feelings being valid doesn’t mean they always point us to reality. We’ll talk about this some other day!
P.S. Here’s a short course on Dealing with Grief, Loss, and Change as an Employee by Dr. J. Rosenberg.
Can Some Feelings Be Difficult To Explain?
Yes, some feelings can be hard to explain, or even understand! Many people struggle with understanding their feelings because we don’t have enough words to describe our feelings.
Why, you ask? Because humans are complex beings, and we, seldom, feel one feeling at any given moment! Feelings usually walk in with a few of their friends!
For instance, I will rarely feel anger by itself. There may be disgust and anger, or a sense of injustice, helplessness, and anger, or an inferiority complex, shame, and anger.
The reason we struggle to explain our feelings is that our cognitive minds need words to make sense of our experiences, and there are just not enough words in our standardized dictionaries for the groups of emotions we may experience at a given time.
How Do You Deal With These Difficult Emotions?
I believe in not reinventing the wheel because progress happens when we have the humility to stand on the shoulders of others before us and build on top of what’s already there.
Dr. Rosenberg shares the Rosenberg Reset method – 1 choice, 8 feelings, 90 seconds.
What this means is: that you have one choice – to be aware & present with the feeling (whichever one of the 8 feelings you’re experiencing) or not – If you choose to be aware, then ride the wave of the unpleasant feeling for 90 seconds (that’s what scientists tell us – that these bodily sensations last about 60-90 seconds).
What isn’t necessarily emphasized here is that there may be multiple waves of 60-90 seconds at any given time!
Now to build on what’s already been built here!
Step 1: On Cushion Practice
This will be the bitter truth for many – there just ain’t no shortcuts, my dear friends! Emotional regulation, and emotional wisdom – are skills – like any other skill out there. The more you practice, the better you’ll do in real time!
So cultivate a practice even if you’re not currently experiencing difficult emotions.
Step 2: Awareness & Presence
This is exactly what Rosenberg says! In the moment of the emotion, be aware of it, be present to it – such that you embody, experience, and express it (remember we spoke about this in the beginning?).
Step 3: Grounding & Rewiring
As you’re experiencing these unpleasant sensations, ground yourself with your practices cultivated on the cushion – these could be breathing practices, rooting practices, centering practices, etc.
Along with grounding the body, also engage your mind by rewiring its patterned behavior of the way it perceives these sensations.
Step 4: Release
In the beginning, I mentioned we’ll talk later about the processing piece where most people get stuck as they don’t allow the whole processing to happen.
The whole process includes letting the emotion go once it’s been embodied, experienced, and expressed.
Release practices, like, body shaking, stretching, certain yoga poses, some forms of journaling, etc., can be helpful ways to complete the processing.
Step 5: On Cushion Practice
We close the loop by returning to our on-cushion practice. After every experience with a difficult feeling, your on-cushion practice will support you with processing it, and further hone your skills to prepare you better for the next round!
If you’re ready to work with your emotional struggles and want to cultivate emotional wisdom, Rooted In Chaos might be a great fit for you – it’s a program for women that guides them towards their anchor within and enables them to develop clarity, wisdom, and joy in all aspects of life.
A Bonus: Food For Thought
It might have seemed like I used the words “emotions” and “feelings” synonymously. Well, they are synonymous, with a tiny difference in the semantics!
Emotion is usually emotion, like sadness, happiness, anger, and fear. While the feeling is usually used in the verb form, like, “I’m feeling happy/ sad/ angry/ afraid.”
However, I can also use emote as the verb and feeling as the noun, feeling.
Food For Thought: Don’t get caught up in the semantics. Always try to understand what may lie behind the veil of words!
P.S. If you’re ready to deep dive into yourself to resolve emotional stuckness, heal relational wounds, and cultivate a deeper relationship with yourself, I’d love to see if I can be of support.
Book your Inner-Work Strategy Call with me to explore your current emotional-relational struggles and put together a bit of a roadmap for your situation.
Let’s Close Out!
- Difficult emotions aren’t really about the emotion, they’re about your relationship with the emotion.
- Depending on your context, different emotions might seem more difficult to you than others.
- Fear, in my opinion, is a root emotion of various difficult emotions.
- The mind’s perspective, and the unpleasant body-based sensations, make some emotions difficult.
- Fear, anxiety, shame, anger, grief, insecurity, jealousy, guilt, loneliness, and helplessness, are 10 of the most difficult feelings.
- At times it’s difficult to explain our feelings because we don’t have enough words in our vocabulary to explain all combinations of feelings we experience.
- On cushion practice, awareness, presence, grounding, rewiring, and release practices are the steps to work with difficult emotions.
- Always try to see what the words might be masking!
- You might also want to take a look at How Long Does Emotional Pain Last?
What are your thoughts on difficult emotions? What are some of the emotions you struggle with the most?
As always, looking forward to hearing from you!