Many years ago, I was caught in particularly strong mental rumination as I agonized over a decision to put my son on a potentially toxic medication for a non-threatening but significant medical condition. For months I had fought in my head against this situation and my own fears, desperately wanting it to be different than it was. Outwardly, I had long and anxious conversations with my husband, frantically looking for any other alternative. 

Woman sitting on the couch looking out the window with sad expression

In a particular moment standing in the kitchen, gripped with fear and indecision, I did something that felt counterintuitive. I turned toward my fear to take a curious and closer look at what was actually there. I somehow stopped resisting, and I let go of the struggle to make this fear go away. 

Here’s what I discovered from this vantage point: that underneath the emotional turmoil was deep sadness and grief at the acknowledgement that no matter how much I love my son and no matter how much I try to control things and do all the “right” things, I cannot fully protect him in this life. Coming face to face with this raw vulnerability, I put my hand on my heart and cried deep, heaving tears.  

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In the time that followed, nothing changed about the situation, but something released in me. The intense fear that had been knocking at my door and taking so much of my energy dissipated when I opened the door to my fear. Surprisingly, when I peered at what lay behind that fear, I found acceptance—of life as it is, with fear being only a part of that, held in a vast expanse of love and care, for my son, and for my own human struggles. In the willingness to look at and be with fear, I also discovered courage to help me move forward, which had not been present in my resistance and struggle. I was able to go forward with greater ease and trust in my capacity to be with what was here.  

Unpleasant emotions often arise when there is a discrepancy between the way things are and the way we want them to be. It makes sense from an evolutionary perspective that we are biologically wired to seek what is pleasurable and avoid what is painful. It also makes sense from that perspective that our autonomic nervous system is wired to go into a protective, survival mode when it detects “threats.” This protection system is especially useful for providing us with resources for dealing with external, physical threats (think saber-toothed tigers) by fueling our bodies with energy in the form of stress hormones and preparing our bodies to fight a predator, run away, or, in more extreme circumstances, shut down (play dead). 

But in the face of internal threats (hello, difficult emotions like fear and sadness), this adaptive survival response (what I like to think of as our “old operating system”) doesn’t always give us access to the most effective resources for addressing our modern-day challenges. Our common response to inner threats of this sort is to try and protect ourselves. We push away, suppress, or fight against our unpleasant emotions; or, when our survival system is in overdrive, we can get overtaken by our emotions, swallowed up in them. 

In either case, when we get stuck in survival mode without a way to regulate this energy, we are cut off from a whole host of other resources to help us meet our challenges—and, importantly, our own suffering.

Cover of the book Adapted from You Don't Have to Change to Change Everything: Six Ways to Shift Your Vantage Point, Stop Striving for Happy, and Find True Well-Being (reprinted and adapted with permission from Health Communications, Inc.).

Enter our newer operating system. As much as we are wired for protection and surviving, we are also wired for connection and thriving. When our nervous systems rest in perceived safety and regulation, our bodily resources can focus on growth, health, and recovery. Our social engagement system comes online, allowing for connection, care, creativity, greater perspective taking, compassion, self-compassion, and so much more. All these inner resources become available to better equip us to meet our modern-day challenges and can be especially helpful in the face of difficult emotions.

Given that our tendency under “threat” is to push away, fight against, or get swallowed up in these strong inner disturbances, what can we do in the face of these daily, unpleasant visitors to help us meet and greet our suffering in more supportive ways? How do we gain access to all our resources, including those of our newer operating system, in the face of strong inner turbulence?

Instead of resisting or trying to change how we feel, we can instead learn to shift our vantage point—the place from which we are looking. When we shift our vantage point, we invite cues of safety to our nervous system and, in doing so, help gain more access to the resources of our newer operating system.

Here are three views you can take, that might help shift your vantage point when you encounter difficult emotions.

1. The anchor view

If you were swimming out at sea during an intense storm, that would be dangerous. Imagine instead that you could grab hold of the anchor of a nearby boat in the harbor. That anchor provides safety and stability. From this vantage point, you can watch the storm and ride it out without being swept away.

When we encounter difficult emotions, if we can steady and stabilize our nervous system as a first move, this ventral vagal regulating energy (as Deb Dana teaches) helps to shift us out of survival mode and gain access to our newer operating system (social engagement system) where we can think more clearly, see a bigger picture, step out of tunnel vision, and bring care to ourselves in the midst of our struggles.

To experience the anchor view, try this short mindful pause using the easy-to-remember acronym ABC.

  • Acknowledge, accept, allow. When we can notice and name what we are feeling, this helps increase emotional regulation. You might say to yourself, “I notice that X (anxiety, fear, anger, etc.) is here.” Using the third-person voice can be helpful to gain a bit of distance if things feel particularly intense in there (e.g., “I notice that Beth is feeling gripped by frustration and anger in this moment; this is a difficult moment for her”).
  • Bring balance into the nervous system. There are many ways to do this, and each person may discover what works best for them in the moment. Mindful breathing; deeper, slower, one-to-one breaths (breathing in and out with roughly six-second in- and outbreaths); or slowing down the exhalation so that it is longer than the inhalation (especially helpful if one is feeling very triggered) can bring more regulatory energy into the nervous system. Softening muscle tension, sitting upright, and engaging in mindfulness-based movement can also be helpful.
  • “C” (see) what is needed. After having taken a few moments to interrupt our survival circuits and bring our newer operating system back online, we are better equipped to see what might be wise and skillful going forward.

2. The child view

Small children have an innate capacity to be curious and to explore. Just watch a baby as it grabs a nearby object in its hand. Without the judgments, likes, dislikes, and conditioning of us adults, young children turn toward and often find fascination with things we might otherwise deem as unworthy of our attention (e.g., a cardboard box, a spoon, a crinkly piece of paper).

Given our conditioning to turn away from our unpleasant inner emotions, practicing taking the vantage point of a small child and bringing curiosity to our inner experiences can help us meet our emotions in new ways. This is a counterintuitive move, but one that helps us cultivate mindful awareness and the ability to be present to our own suffering without being taken over by it. To experience the child view, stop, drop, and get curious:

  • As you notice unpleasant emotions sneaking into your awareness, stop, pause.
  • Drop your awareness from your thinking mind down into your body. Take a look around in there and see what’s going on. What physical sensations and energies are present? What do they feel like? Is there constriction, tightening, clenching? Softening, opening, expansiveness? How are these emotions getting expressed as energy in the body?
  • Bring curiosity to what your inner landscape is like. Be curious about ways your nervous system might be protecting you, preparing you to fight, flee, or shut down. Be curious what your emotions might be telling you, and how they may want you to be with them (see the compassionate parent view below to help with this).

Be sure to practice this with emotions that aren’t too intense, like daily stress, frustration, or irritation. Stronger emotions may require the guidance of a therapist depending on one’s circumstance and the intensity of one’s emotions. But if you are in a place where this practice can help you forward, then try, for example, saying this to yourself:

Isn’t this interesting that when I just got angry at my partner, my whole body started to tighten and constrict? I had a sense that I didn’t want to let go of this thing that is bothering me and feel calm. I wanted to hold on to a sense of being right. I felt a strong impulse to fight back, even though I knew he didn’t mean what he said, and my emotions felt disproportionate to the circumstances.

Cultivating curiosity from the child view and learning to shift our vantage point in this way helps to see and create new possibilities of responding, choosing, and behaving that we may not have been aware of when in the grip of our emotions.

3. The compassionate parent view

Imagine a child in distress (e.g., disappointed they can’t have something they want), and three reactions a parent might have: completely ignoring the child; telling the child to cut it out and stop whining; or sitting beside the child, putting an arm around them, and offering some caring, understanding words.

  • The Bathtub Exercise

    Imagine that you are soaking in a bathtub.

    Imagine filling the tub with whatever kind of comfort you are in need of (care, kindness, compassion, acceptance, validation, encouragement, etc.).

    Call up a time when you felt this emotion, and let that feeling be present in your mind and body in any way possible.

    Imagine that as you soak in the tub, the painful parts of you are being held and soothed.

    Take some time to stay with this feeling.

In the presence of the third response, it is likely the child will be most soothed and calmed. When it comes to how we meet and greet our own difficult emotions, we often treat ourselves like the first or second example, and rarely like the third. When we push away, suppress, judge, or fight against our inner experiences, we disconnect from the parts of us that most need our attention. 

This third response, the self-compassionate move, is one that feels foreign to many people. How do we learn to meet our own suffering like the metaphorical compassionate parent in the third example (you could substitute friend or mentor if that resonates more)? Christopher Germer and Kristen Neff teach a course on Mindful Self-Compassion to help cultivate this inner quality. 

One way that I have found useful to help people dip their toe into meeting their difficult emotions from a compassionate vantage point is to think of this: Instead of trying to get rid of what is unpleasant, consider what inner qualities you might invite to sit side by side with your difficulties, to bring more ease?

Learning to shift your vantage point using the anchor view, child view, and compassionate parent view won’t eliminate life’s daily inner storms, but it will help you connect with inner resources to bring greater ease and even thrive in the midst of life’s challenges.

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