How to Use Mindfulness to Work With Negative Emotions

nurturingThere are moments in life that are hard, painful, scary and difficult to endure. There are times when we feel anger, anxiety, grief, embarrassment, stress, remorse or other negative emotions.

In these trying times we often want to escape the pain, drown it out or push it away somehow. We may begin a mental struggle with the pain trying to mentally talk our way out of it, or we distract ourselves with activities or drown it out with food or drink or something stronger.

All these ways of avoiding pain only perpetuate it in the long run. Avoidance creates suffering and keeps us from living fully this miraculous and precious life that we have.

Through mindfulness you can learn to turn your negative emotions into your greatest teachers and sources of strength.


Instead of ‘turning away’ from pain in avoidance we can learn to gently ‘turn towards’ what we’re experiencing. We can bring a caring open attention towards the wounded parts of ourselves and make wise choices about how to respond to ourselves and to life.

It’s a paradox that we all must understand: It is by turning towards negative emotions that we find relief from them – not by turning away.

Whatever You Fight, You Strengthen, and What You Resist, Persists – Eckhart Tolle

Here is a six step process for mindfully dealing with difficult emotions…

1. Stop, Turn Towards

Once you have become aware of the feeling, stop for a moment. Take a deep breath and then ‘sit with’ the anger, shame, guilt, anxiety, frustration or fear. Don’t inhibit it, suppress it, ignore it or try to conquer it. Just be with it with an attitude of open curiosity and acceptance.

2. Identify The Emotion

Acknowledge that the emotion is there. If you are embarrassed, you can specifically recognise that feeling. You can mentally say to yourself, for example, “I know there is embarrassment in me.”

3. Acceptance Of What Is

When you are embarrassed, or feeling another negative emotion, you don’t need to deny it. You can accept what is present. In his book ‘Peace is Every Step’, Thich Nhat Hahn suggests we can actually mentally acknowledge to ourselves… “I can accept that I am experiencing intense embarrassment right now.”

Through your mindful acceptance, you can embrace or hold the feeling in your awareness– this alone can calm and soothe you. This is an act of self-compassion and responsiveness to your own distress, and it is so much more effective than punishing yourself for having this feeling.

See if you can be open to feeling what you feel. Opening to it means to see what is there fully without suppressing, rejecting, ignoring or trying to be ‘stronger’ than the emotion.

By opening and embracing the emotion, you create a mental space around it and witness it instead of being enmeshed in it. By creating this space you’ll discover that you are not your anger, your fear or your pain. You are much larger than that.

Think of embracing your difficult emotion in your arms just like a mother holding her upset child.

4. Realize The Impermanence Of All Emotions

Acknowledge that all emotions are impermanent. They arise, stay for a while and then disappear. They come and go in you, like waves in the sea, cresting and receding.

Your task is simply to allow this current wave to be and to witness, with patience, as it continuously changes form and eventually disappears.

We often take emotions (especially negative ones) very personally. But mindfulness invites us to view them as simply mental events passing through- temporary waves in our ocean of awareness.

Psychologist and mindfulness teacher Elisha Goldstein suggests, it can be helpful to say to ourselves, “While this is a temporary feeling, it is here right now, how can I care for it? What do I need?”

5. Investigation & Response

When you are calm enough, you can look deeply into your emotion to understand what has brought it about and what is causing your discomfort.

It may be that particular kinds of thoughts were the cause. You may have been worrying unnecessarily about something or someone and that generated feelings of anxiety. Perhaps you were ruminating on a random comment a colleague said last week and it created anger or embarrassment.

You may also find that you have particular values, beliefs, expectations and judgments about how you should behave or be seen by others that contributed to the emotion.

Perhaps an event has happened and your response is perfectly natural or perhaps an old habitual reaction. Allow the light of your mindful awareness to help you gain insights into the emotion.

You may then reflect on how you want to respond to what is happening. This may take the form of simply realizing that your thoughts are not reality and therefore not taking them seriously.

It could be that the simple embracing of the emotion is all you need to do for now, or it could be that a response is needed to a situation that has arisen in your daily life.

6. Trust Yourself To Choose The Appropriate Response

Love Melli

P.S Are you suffering under the weight of negative thinking? If so, read this related post about how I overcame this in my own life and my ‘Four Keys to Overcoming Negative Thinking….For Good’

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  1. darryl hoff says:

    Hey Melli. Just to let you know that I have been doing something which sounds incredibly similar to what you do. I’ve had a really rough time in the past and am on meds for depression and a few other conditions and let’s just say that I was given advice on how to deal with said problems. It works a treat! I also strongly agree that the mind is a muscle and that the more it’s used the stronger it becomes. In this case, the more we are mindful, the more we will benefit from mindfulness practice. I have been on my own journey/route to self contentment in life and maybe even happiness. I am getting there and I can feel within myself that I will grow from strength to strength. God bless, Darryl 🙂

  2. Teresa McNamee says:

    I really appreciate the part of this that talks about sitting with the emotions and then realizing that they are not permanent. So often we hear “it will always be like this”. Have we “always” felt one way or another? No. How easy it is to forget that we once didn’t feel so bad, even in a short moment. Emotions do not define us. By owning the emotion and staring it directly in the face, we can conquer and move through it to the next day so that, maybe, we won’t feel so badly then.

  3. Everyone says that emotions come and go like a wave, just be present and all that. My experience is that turning towards it only escalates it and intensifies it and leads to strong desires to act on my feelings in negative ways and the only way out is to turn it off and force myself to do something else. I have trouble identifying my feelings–maybe it’s always self hatred/self judgment/shame, maybe that’s different than fear, sadness,etc. I don’t know. I have been working on this my entire adult life without much to show for it except that I’m still here, plugging away.

    • Hi Sharon, thanks for your comment. With mindfulness practice, it’s a turning toward with a certain attitude. An attitude of curiosity, acceptance, warmth and one infused with compassion. By turning towards in this way we are able to open up a space of awareness between ‘me’ and the thought or emotion. In this space we have the power to choose a response to it. This is very different to to ‘following’ a thought or emotion. Following a thought or emotion and ‘listening’ to it means we have no space in between ‘me’ and the thought (we are identified with it) so we most likely play it out and follow it. We will perhaps intensify it by following and listening and playing it out. In mindfulness we begin to change our relationship to challenging thoughts and emotions and over time our capacity to respond with kindness, warmth and wisdom grows and grows.

      • Sandra Macher says:

        …just embraced my flu with an attitude of curiosity, acceptance and warmth and here I am 24 hours later after having really dug into all your interviews on the summit and the addtional links etc feeling a lot lighter about having been in bed.
        I guess I just had an intense round of practising being an aware “witness”
        Tamis somatic meditation was also helpful as it was less stressful on my nose and throat 😉
        Thank you for all the wisdom you are helping to spread on this planet . Love from Switzerland * Sandra

  4. Hi.

    I had been having a very calm and quite interesting day. Firstly, I was listening to someone speak about the amount of money he spent purchasing some items, and how he donated a significant sum of money for a charity cause.

    And I quietly thought to myself, when would I be able to do something similar. Having this belief that I would be able to do that, and much more, the thought of all the activities I’d have to understake to get to this point seemed overwhelming.

    The next discussion that came up was payment for some dues. For some time, I’d focused on my long term goals, having observed that it seemed that if I focused on the present needs, I’d only end up solving these needs as they arrive, and thus I might not folllow up on plans toward finding solutions to my long term objectives.

    Because of the deadline attachee to the dues, I then decided to think of how I could find a solution to paying it.

    And that’s when my thoughts went spiralling down.

    Now I’m seeking a means to think constructively about present problems I face, without being overwhelmed/dwelling incessantly on them.

    Please could you provide any suggestions?

    Thank you.

    • Perhaps you could try some cognitive reframing: instead of viewing your current situation as a problem, decide to view it as an opportunity to develop & hone new skills, and practice feeling grateful for this chance to grow. It may sound trite, but even just internally using positive terms to describe these situations to yourself will change your relationship with them, & can help you feel more excited, less overwhelmed.

  5. Claudia says:

    I have been suffering from severe anxiety and depression. I’m having trouble logically thinking about thoughts and rationalizing them from reality or just thoughts. I have anxiety when I fee overwhelmed by pain and feelings. I am not able to eat or sleep anymore. I am in a constant pain and I feel exhausted. I feel ill mentally and physically I have spiraled into deep derealization, depression, and anxiety. Anxiety has manifested into my fear now. Whenever I feel scared my anxiety is right there. Whenever I feel an unfamiliar pain or thought my brain worries. For example when I think “oh gosh the devil is after me I feel so terrible” my brain is scared and I spiral into deep depression and anxiety. My adrenaline has been pushed to the extent. I feel like my body is struggling to to eat I have stomach pains but I can’t eat. I suffer from heart palpitations, tremors, cold flashes, uneasyness. I’m just wondering if medication and mindfulness will help me? I’m at a point where my brain receptors are having trouble trying new things and it’s constantly in the same thought pattern and taking any new thought or idea into something to create fear and anxiety. I’m trying to accept my anxiety but I’m still scared of how it makes me feel and the body symptoms it causes me. Also everytime I try to be mindful of my thoughts my brain goes blank and doesn’t actually acknowledge them. My brain automatically thinks of any new idea as something bad and rebels against it by causing more anxiety and stress. How do I keep my mindfulness throughout all this? I feel as if I have lost touch with reality and as if living in my mind and thoughts.


  1. […] go, like waves, slowly observing them as they change and eventually disappear. When we are calmer, we look into these thoughts and emotions and find a positive way to respond to […]

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