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  • Writer's pictureKelli Rugless, PsyD

Emotional Surfing: a different approach for dealing with uncomfortable emotions

As a psychologist in Southern California who works almost exclusively with women, I have the pleasure of connecting with highly intelligent, successful, and creative people from all different backgrounds and walks of life on a daily basis. So you can imagine my intrigue when I began to notice a trend that came up across all of my session. Don’t get me wrong; it’s expected that there are similar themes discussed from person to person. We’re all human beings navigating the same world. There are bound to be similar experiences and similar responses to said experiences. What is not expected is for those sentiments to be conveyed with nearly the exact same words and the exact same tone of voice from individual to individual. What is this sentiment? Well it usually sounds something like this, “I just wish I wasn’t so emotional”, or “I feel like my emotions always get the best of me!”, or even deeper, “I feel like my emotions betray me in really important moments”. An inner war against emotions. An overwhelming sense that one should be able to “control” one’s emotions and a deep disappointment when the attempt is unsuccessful. I won’t go in to the origin of these beliefs, but suffice it to say that this view of emotions is a recipe for a constant power struggle. If we use a political analogy, it’s like saying that the thoughts are the President and have veto power over anything the emotions try to bring to his attention. And as we can all attest, when the emotional experience is intense enough, the thoughts have to take a backseat.

So what tools does modern psychology offer to deal with this experience? Dialectical Behavior Therapy has quite a bit to say on emotional regulation and how to have a more cooperative relationship with our emotions. In fact it discusses the idea that while our emotions are not always factual they always provide information. Meaning, it is important that we attend to our emotions and try to glean what information they are trying to communicate rather than immediately reacting or attempting to rationalize them. Instead of struggling for dominance or control one’s emotions, the mind instead takes a more curious approach and attempts to observe and understand. This is sometimes referred to as ‘surfing the emotions’. The idea being that trying to “control” one’s emotions is akin to standing in the ocean and attempting to stop a wave from hitting you: impossible. But with enough practice, it is possible to surf the wave.

There are generally 5 steps to surfing the emotions: Notice, Name, Accept, Investigate, Allow&Release. 1) Notice is self-explanatory. Notice how you feel. This usually involves breathwork and deep breathing to be able to focus on exactly what you’re experiencing in the moment. This helps to take the mind off of trying to rationalize an experience that cannot be rationalized and simply focus on what is happening in the present. 2) Name the emotions. What is it? What word best describes it? What prompted it? This requires your mind’s involvement so be careful to remain curious rather than to quickly to jump to conclusions, judge, or rationalize the emotions you’re currently experiencing. Just let your emotions be for now. 3)Accept that this is how you feel now, but not how you will feel forever. Your emotions are a part of what it means to be human. No matter how intense the feelings are, emotions are dynamic by nature; they don’t last forever. Just like a wave, emotions crest and ease if you give them enough time to occur. And remember, acceptance is not the same as giving-in or giving up; it is releasing the stress that comes with wanting to be somewhere other than where you currently are. 4)Investigate the emotions. This is sometimes referred to as “sitting with the emotion”. This just means that if you believe and recognize that feelings are not permanent than you can allow yourself the opportunity to sit rather than run from your emotional experience. Notice things like how intense the experience is, how you’re breathing, and what you’re feeling physically in your body. 5)Allow & Release the emotions. Now it’s time to allow your thoughts to have center stage. Take note of your judgments, the struggles, and release them. It can helpful to visualize waves coming in and receding from the shore to symbolize how you can allow and release your thoughts.

So the next time you see the emotional wave off in the distance, remember that there’s no need to run from it, attempt to control it, or be drowned by it because why do that when you know how to surf?

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