Mindfulness: Does it Hurt?

Many of you who are on a path to mental wellbeing or living your best life will have heard of or started practicing mindfulness. There is a whole lot of research about the positive effects of the practice, for example: anxiety, stress, and anger reduction, reduced relapse in recurrent depression, increased empathy, self-compassion, and satisfaction with life (see Keng, Smoski, and Robins, 2011, for a good review).
You could be forgiven for thinking that practicing mindfulness only comes with feelings of peace and serenity. Maybe you have believed that if these feelings don’t come up when you try to meditate, you must be doing it wrong. That is not so. Mindfulness can be a painful experience at times.

In the first few years of my practicing mindfulness, I was doing it wrong. I was in a relationship that wasn’t right for me, but was too scared to do anything about it because I didn’t want to hurt the other person. I remember that towards the end of that relationship as my feelings of unease grew stronger, I would diligently apply my “mindfulness” whenever I wanted to escape from feeling like that. It went something like this: “I’m getting that feeling again of deep sadness and knowing that I can’t keep going like this” “Okay, be mindful of the birds singing, the trees I can see, the feeling of walking” etc., until I felt the uncomfortable emotion pass.
I know now that this is not the way through painful emotions. Using mindfulness as a distraction like this only suppresses your feelings and they come back later, often stronger. Sometimes though, we are not ready to turn inward and face what we are feeling. That is okay, it is just where we are at that point in time.

From what I have seen in my clients and experienced myself, when we do feel ready to turn toward our emotional pain, (with support if need be) a few things happen:

You realise that the pain doesn’t break you

Like a mountain in the sea, you are connected to the ground and the emotions you feel are the waves crashing against you. When you allow yourself to experience your feelings as they are, you realise that they ebb and flow, and that intensity that you don’t think you can stand another moment doesn’t last forever. You also realise that emotions are experiences you are having, and underneath them is an observing stillness you can learn to connect with.

You get clarity

When you don’t hide from how you feel and truly experience it, you sometimes suddenly understand what lead you to that place. I see this a lot in session with people when they have turned toward a difficult feeling they had been avoiding. Where they just didn’t have the words to articulate before, they begin to describe what they are experiencing and they inherently understand where it came from. This leads to their knowing what step (however small) they need to take next.

You show yourself true compassion by accepting where you are in that moment

Self-love can seem a tricky one to tackle. What I have seen in others and myself is that allowing yourself to feel, wholeheartedly and without self-judgement, is the beginning of accepting who you are (and where you are). Acceptance without judgement leads to understanding and compassion, and compassion to me is another word for love.
So the short answer as to whether mindfulness hurts is HELL YES sometimes. But through allowing yourself to feel and finding your way through the pain, you also open yourself up to feelings of deep joy, peace, gratitude, and awe for the moments that make up your life.