Stop Running From Emotions—And Start Being More Productive

Sit with whatever comes up, and be transformed

Midjourney/prompt: "a glowing volume dial on a stereo"

A few years ago, when I attended Zen classes at the Buddhist Society in London, the abbot urged us to refrain from “picking and choosing,” in his words, which parts of our day-to-day life we welcomed and which we rejected. As he put it, the fundamental “work” of Zen is to commit to being with whatever emotional energies arise and allow them to transform you. 

Although a Zen monk might look calm on the outside, they commit to feeling all their feelings. The serene expression on their face may belie a tumultuous emotional interior, like the swan that floats gracefully on the lake while its unseen legs paddle with intense fervor. Being fully present with all the intensity of your emotions doesn’t mean you have to act them out.

For much of my life, I struggled with picking and choosing. It’s not that I don’t have access to my emotions—in fact, I can feel them pretty clearly. It’s that I really don’t like some of them. Any expression I may have had, serene or otherwise, would have come from avoiding my feelings, not by maintaining equanimity in their presence.

In professional contexts, the desire to not feel anxiety, inadequacy, or fear of judgment led me to procrastinate or kept me from putting myself forward for opportunities that would have advanced my career. The work always got done, but with a lot more suffering than was necessary. Instead of just allowing feelings to show up and be there while I went about my business, my habitual response was to distract myself from the ones I didn’t want to feel. 

Now, as a solopreneur in a world of infinitely scrolling social media, a to-do list longer than my arm, and chocolate in the cupboard, finding ways to push away those “bad” feelings isn’t hard—but it comes at a cost.

The truth is that something happens the moment you stop resisting your feelings: they start to change and move through you more freely. A stuck emotion that has been with you for years can transform in just a few minutes—if you commit to feeling it fully. 

So let’s explore why welcoming the full spectrum of emotions can be so challenging—and how your life can change for the better when you finally stop resisting.

Emotions are not thoughts

Emotions manifest as physical sensations in the body, where the different patterns of sensation map to different emotions. Since people with damage to the brain regions responsible for emotions have significantly reduced capacity to make decisions, the capacity to feel emotion is clearly critical for navigating life. (Jonny Miller already covered this in detail, so I encourage you to read that next.)

Thoughts, on the other hand, seem to show up in the head, whether in the form of inner speech, visual images, or something more abstract. If you’re someone who can hear your own voice in your head, you may be surprised to learn that not everyone does. Conversely, if you don’t experience a voice in your head, you may be surprised to learn that people who report that they do aren’t just speaking metaphorically.

However thought shows up for you, it’s still not emotion, and it’s important not to confuse the two. This is not to say that thoughts and the feelings of emotion are entirely separate things, either. Instead, it’s useful to remember that mind and body are one unified process. 

Let’s say you get an email from your manager or an investor that says, “We need to talk.” How might you respond?

You might feel a tingling in your solar plexus, which suggests excitement. At the same time, you think: maybe I’ve secured the funding round?

You might feel warmth across your head and chest with a pounding heart, which suggests anger. At the same time, you might think: how dare they be so inconsiderate and not give me more information? 

You might feel cold or numb, which suggests fear. At the same time, you might think: maybe I messed up, and I’m about to get fired?

Whatever happens, the feelings in your body are a vital part of the experience of emotion, and listening to your inner stream of consciousness and inferring an emotion from thoughts is not the same as directly experiencing the kaleidoscope of sensations in your body.

If you’re someone who is more in your head, with less access to the felt experience of emotion in your body, pick some memories or imagined future scenarios that you would expect to have an emotional charge for you and pay attention to the sensations in your body. 

As you become more skilled at noticing these sensations, ask yourself what emotions they might correspond to, but be cautious about immediately jumping to a conclusion, because it’s easy to fall back into thoughts. Also, practice paying attention just to the sensations and leaving the thoughts about them alone for a little while.

Watch out for picking and choosing

Sometimes when I write, I encounter blocks—some words that don’t flow easily—and I feel uncomfortable. I think it’s something to do with feeling inadequate or that I’ll be judged. The tendency to switch over to Twitter (sorry, 𝕏) or a quick game of online chess is strong, and I can’t say I never give into it.

The ‘“feel bad”-to-“scroll Twitter” pathway is picking and choosing. It’s me saying that these parts of my experience, of my life, are not acceptable or welcome. I only want to be fully alive for the good parts, like strolling in the sun or eating a delicious pain au chocolat, thank you very much.

There are two problems with this attitude.

The first is that purposely distracting from or numbing the felt sensations of emotions doesn’t make them go away. The problem hasn’t been solved, the decision hasn’t been made, and the essay hasn’t been written. In fact, it usually just makes things worse. Coming back to the thing you’re avoiding after an hour of doomscrolling isn’t itself a pleasant experience, and the original aversions you had are still there. All of this leads to the self-reinforcing “feel bad”-to-“scroll Twitter”-to-“feel bad”-to-“scroll Twitter” feedback loop from hell.

The second problem is that the effect of turning down the volume on unpleasant emotions isn’t constrained just to the unpleasant emotions, but to all sensory experience. Let’s demonstrate this with a little game.

First, gently become aware of the world around you. Sounds, colors, textures, contact between your body and the chair and floor, emotional sensations, smells—all of it. You can increase your awareness of all this without taking your eyes away from these words.

Then, keep reading and let your mind drift to that thing you’ve been avoiding: the task you’ve been putting off, that call you don’t want to make, whether or not you’re truly happy in your job or relationship. As all of that stuff bubbles up, notice what has happened to your experience of the world around you. Has it gone away a little bit? Did things get less vivid? Is there a sense that you went somewhere in your head? 

I call the sense of being clearly and responsively in the world “aliveness,” and one of the tactics many people use to avoid feeling unpleasant things is to turn down aliveness. But if you turn down aliveness to avoid feeling anxious, your experience of happiness, joy, and excitement will also be muted. There is only one master volume dial on experience.

Feeling everything takes courage

The only way to break the cycle of the aforementioned feedback loop is to stop running away from feeling. This is a courageous act, because it means finally feeling all the things you previously avoided. 

This courage can take many forms. It’s the courage to feel uncomfortable without resistance or self-protection. It’s the courage not to know what will happen next, to let go of control and allow the unfamiliar to emerge and evolve however it will. It’s the courage to be seen and witnessed in your emotions, and to experience them while still participating fully in all the activities of work and life. It’s also the courage not to act carelessly or maliciously while feeling whatever it is you feel; just because you feel angry doesn’t give you permission to be abusive.

On the other side of this courage, though, lies something beautiful. In my experience, the emotions that I think are bad, that I would rather not experience, are always doorways to greater depth. When I stop numbing myself or fighting and allow myself to feel the emotion, it’s intense, but I emerge on the other side with a new understanding and perspective, as though it were just a stepping stone that I had been loitering on for years.

Take one particularly strong emotion that many people tend to avoid or numb: anger. On the surface, anger feels all-consuming, dangerous, violent, even. We’re often trained out of feeling and expressing anger in favor of redirecting it into something “constructive.” Like the swan drifting on the lake, we think (often correctly) that our friends, spouses, and colleagues don’t want to see the tumult beneath the surface. In many contexts it’s inappropriate or unsafe to go there.

But embracing the tumult—feeling the anger—is crucial, because it opens a door to what lies on the other side. The deeper truth is that anger points towards sincere and earnest care. As the poet David Whyte says:

“Anger is the deepest form of compassion, for another, for the world, for the self, for a life, for the body, for a family and for all our ideals, all vulnerable and all, possibly about to be hurt. Stripped of physical imprisonment and violent reaction, anger is the purest form of care, the internal living flame of anger always illuminates what we belong to, what we wish to protect and what we are willing to hazard ourselves for.”

If I get angry at that “we need to talk” email, it might be a message that I care about respectful and compassionate communication, something that I didn’t receive. Although I can take the anger at face value and make requests of others to behave differently, I can also use it to learn about my own values and orienting principles in life. But if I avoid or push the anger away, I may miss those insights.

How to embrace your emotions—and stop suffering

To embrace your emotions means to cease picking and choosing what parts of your life you want to feel and those you don’t. In particular, it means noticing your impulse to run away when you encounter emotions you don’t want to feel—and feeling them anyway. 

You might think that this is an exercise in masochism, but something beautiful happens the moment you stop resisting: the emotion starts to move. It transforms and becomes something else, something lighter and more free. Emotion serves a purpose, one that it can only fulfill once you’ve allowed it to show up. Once its purpose has been served, it probably doesn’t need to hang around. 

If you’d like to explore this further, a good place to start is with Jonny Miller’s essay about how to pay off your emotional debt, which provides strategies for how to access and release emotions that you’ve been suppressing. If you want to go deeper, check out the Art of Accomplishment podcast with Joe Hudson and Brett Kistler, who are coaches and personal transformation experts. I recently took their eight-week master class, which deals with this topic in detail and draws on the materials in the podcast.

In general, though, really feeling your emotions is going to be intense. You’re going to want to move your body, to make noise and breathe through it. I suggest creating spaces in your life where you feel safe enough to turn up the dial on the emotion. 

If you’re working with anger, you can scream into a pillow and then beat it up. If you’re working with grief, you could journal or speak out loud to yourself about your loss, and allow the tears when they come. If you’re working with fear, you could visualize in detail the thing you’re afraid of while paying close attention to the sensations in your body.

One note of caution is warranted: I am not a therapist and I don’t play one on the internet, so if you want to try this at home and you genuinely believe there are emotional states that would be too much for you to handle safely, pursue this with the help of a qualified professional. In particular, you probably want to avoid retraumatization by vividly imagining a past traumatic event that you don’t have the capacity to process. While the “feel your feelings” approach may be the right one, consciously deciding to stay fully alive in the presence of strong emotions can still be an intense, sometimes overwhelming experience, so err on the side of caution if you have any such concerns.

For further reading, I recommend the book Building a Life Worth Living: A Memoir by Marsha Linehan, the creator of dialectical behavior therapy (DBT), which combines cognitive therapy with Zen ideas for those who strongly feel emotions. 

It’s ironic that we’d rather feel an “unpleasant” emotion at 70% intensity most of the time than at full intensity for a few minutes—when it’s the latter that makes the emotion go away. We suffer a lot more than we need to. I hope that you now have enough curiosity to investigate what happens when you stop running from feelings, turn around, and feel them fully.


Michael Ashcroft is a teacher of the Alexander Technique, a coach, and a writer with a background in energy technology innovation. You can read more of his work at michaelashcroft.org and expandingawareness.org.

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@shuaavan 10 months ago

This post arrived at the time I needed it. I was looking at humility, hiding and keeping the anger down. I have been nursing this anger and frustration for almost a year now. And it’s all just inside me. It will hurt others if I bring it out. I was walking around eggshells and sugarcoating it to save those around me. I was trying to understand Plato or Aristotle’s advice on having forbearance on one’s neighbor. I was and still am having a hard time wrapping my head around it. Thanks, Every and Michael Ashcroft! Thanks David Whyte too! I can scream now. Listen to all of myself first, logic can come later:)

Dan Shipper 10 months ago

@shuaavan so glad this came at the right time for you! I hope you can space to feel your anger, and listen to its message. Good luck!

Brad Z. 10 months ago

An excellent roadmap! Thank you.

Dan Shipper 10 months ago

@Zeromick glad you liked it!

Brian Hahn 10 months ago

Thanks so much for recognizing that anger indicates what we care about, what we expect from ourselves and, by extension, others. It made me think about whether we can truly get others on board with what is simple to us but apparently difficult to them.

@robert.matyszewski 10 months ago

Thanks for this post. It is amazing but i have to add something what's difficult. I experience a lot of anxiety and crucial part is to find what I am anxious of and name it exactly to experience this emotion in full. That's the hardest part for me.

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