Dennis Tirch Ph.D

Practice Compassion

Working Compassionately with Difficult Emotions: Starting with Acceptance

Compassionate acceptance of our emotions: The three circles

Posted Jul 25, 2012

(Today's blog is written by my friend and colleague Dr. Russell Kolts, the author of The Compassionate Mind Guide to Managing Your Anger. Russell is a deeply warm and wise soul, and he will soon be blogging with us regularly. DT) 

One of the biggest challenges to working with difficult emotions like anxiety and anger is to accept them in the first place. It’s hard to do. We don’t want to accept them, because they don’t feel good. There are also lots of messages out there that seem to tell us that we should just be happy all of the time, and there is something wrong with us if we aren’t.

The problem is that if we get caught up in being ashamed of our emotions or running from them, we never build up the compassionate courage to work with them. This working starts with accepting our emotions as they are, nonjudgmentally…like allowing ourselves to simply notice what is on the plate before deciding whether or not we’re going to eat it. This is one reason mindfulness approaches have been so useful—mindfulness allows us to drop the judgments and shaming and to observe our mental experience just as it is, which creates some space that we can work with.

This space allows us to shift out of our troublesome habitual responses to emotions like anger and anxiety (for example, avoiding things that scare us or saying harsh things to those we care about). This Space allows us to ask questions, like “What would be helpful here? What would help me feel safe as I work with this difficult situation?” 

In Compassion-Focused Therapy, this mindful, compassionate method of relating to our emotions begins with an understanding of the “three circles” of emotion. This model is based in evolutionary psychology and the neuroscience of emotion, but it’s not terribly complicated. The idea is that we consider emotions as being grouped by evolutionary functions: those emotions that evolved to help us detect and respond to threats (anger, anxiety, disgust…), those emotions that evolved to motivate us to pursue goals and reward us for attaining them (excitement, attraction, ambition), and those emotions that help us to feel safe, at peace, and connected with others (contentment, safe, soothed). These emotions are linked with specific motivations (defensiveness and aggression; ambition; nurturing) and chemicals, like the stress hormones, dopamine and oxytocin

The point here is that we’re all born with evolved brains having specific structures and functions that produce these emotions, and we have them for a reason—they helped our ancestors survive and pass their genes along to us. These emotions aren’t a sign that something is wrong with us. Rather, they simply mean that we have perfectly normal human brains like everyone else. If we’re going to take responsibility for working with challenging emotions, we have to stop beating ourselves up for having them.

This can be hard, as the way these emotions play out in us can cause us real problems. Our evolved fight and flight responses don’t work so well at the family dinner table or the board-room. This is complicated by the fact that many of us have had experiences that conditioned us to respond in ways that aren’t helpful, even as our backgrounds failed to give us what we needed to manage our difficult emotions. The key is to recognize that none of this is our fault. We didn’t choose our brains and bodies. We didn’t choose whether or not we were born into a situation with caretakers that could nurture us well and give our developing brains what they needed to help us develop good emotion-regulation. We didn’t choose our early conditioning experiences that may have taught us maladaptive ways of managing these powerful emotions.

But compassion doesn’t mean letting ourselves off the hook. We have LOTS of choices that we can make now. We can choose to accept that we and other people will have these emotions to struggle with, and extend warmth, acceptance, and kindness to ourselves as we do so. We can choose to access people who can help us learn new ways of working with these emotions and assist us in overcoming obstacles we’ve picked up along the way—like having difficulty trusting others. We can commit ourselves to working with our problems to create better lives for ourselves and those we care about. We can choose compassion.

With deep respect,


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