Letting go of painful emotions

This section provides some techniques for letting go of emotional suffering. The best way to get rid of painful and negative emotions is to let them go. Learning to let go of the emotions is extremely difficult.

Letting go of emotional suffering associated with negative emotions is not the same thing as letting go of the emotions themselves. Letting go of the suffering is a process that we can learn.

We do not mean pushing away or sitting on the emotions. The emotions are valid, and represent experiences and interactions that were or are painful. What we are talking about is dealing with these emotions in a new way that will relieve some of the suffering that goes with them.

In learning to let go of our emotional suffering, we use the mindfulness skills that we have practiced before, the observe and describe skills. We learn to get some distance from our emotions, to stand back and observe them. If we can get distance, we can see them more clearly.

Try getting some distance from a painful emotion that you have. Put it over there and look at it, maybe as if it were on a screen or a stage. Describe in words what the experience of that emotion is like. This also helps to give you distance and perspective.

By looking at your emotions, you are exposing yourself to them, looking and describing, not necessarily acting on them, and not being swallowed by or overwhelmed by them.


As you practice observing your emotions, fill out Emotion Regulation Homework Sheet 1. Make several copies of this sheet, and use them as you practice this skill.

Understanding Dialectics

In DBT, we talk about the dialectic (as in Dialectical...). This means looking at two different ideas, principles, interpretations, points of view, and balancing and measuring them against each other. Then you may choose one or the other, or decide to live with both or some mixture of both.

Some examples of dialectics are:

  • changing.......................not changing
  • good...........................bad
  • wise mind......................emotion mind
  • talking........................being silent
  • acceptance.....................approval

  • Can you think of other examples?

    When we learn to accept our negative emotions, we begin to let go of the hold they have on us and the suffering that they cause us. Accepting our emotions, letting ourselves realize that we have these emotions and that they are real and valid, is NOT approving of our suffering, or approving of the events that preceded these emotions. We DON'T have to approve of our negative emotions as we learn to accept them.

    You can choose acceptance without choosing approval.
    This was probably the hardest thing for me to learn in DBT. I felt that accepting that I had these terrible, painful feelings meant that it was okay that I felt so much pain. That made me angry and despairing.

    But when I understood that I did NOT have to approve, that I only had to let the feelings in and acknowledge that they were there, accepting them in that way, it was not such an impossible process.

     How do you think accepting your emotions might affect your suffering?


    Steps for Letting Go of Painful Emotions

    Sometimes accepting the painful emotions can reduce our suffering, because we are no longer
    running from them or pushing them away. At times this acceptance can reduce our pain.  Notice the difference between pain and suffering. Suffering  is the pain plus frantic efforts to push the pain away, and feelings about the injustice of our suffering and the pain of having our pain.

    Following are Marsha Linehan's steps for letting go of our suffering.

  • Observe your emotion. Acknowledge that the emotion exists. Stand back from it and get yourself unstuck from it.
  • Try to experience your emotion as a wave, coming and going. You may find it helpful to concentrate on some part of the emotion, like how your body is feeling, or some image about it.
  •     I try to imagine an ocean wave flowing through me, but not so big that it knocks me over.
    Don't try to push the emotion away. This makes it bigger, and increases our suffering. Don't reject the emotion.
    Don't judge your emotion. It is not good or bad. It is just there. There are no bad emotions, just emotions. Anger, fear, sadness are all painful emotions, but they are not bad. Everyone has them, and they are just as valid as the happy emotions.
    At the same time, do not hang onto your emotion. Don't rehearse it over and over to yourself. Don't escalate it or make it bigger. Sometimes when we feel a very painful emotion, like anger or a deep  grief, we hold onto it, or we intensify it, making it stronger or bigger, in our efforts to deal with it or to give it our full  attention.  Try not to do this. Just let it be however it is. This can result in a lessening of the pain.
  • You are not your emotion. Your emotion is part of you, but it is not all of you. You are more than your emotion.
  •     Do not necessarily act on the emotion. Having the emotion does not mean you have to act. You may just need to sit with the emotion. Often acting can intensify and prolong the emotion.
  • Practice LOVING your emotions. This can be a difficult concept. Why would we want to love painful emotions?

    • We can learn to love our emotions just the way we can learn to love (accept) anything else about  ourselves or our experience that we cannot change - our age, our height, freckles, the birds that sing early in the morning and wake us up, the weather, the size of our feet, allergies, etc.
      Remember that acceptance (love) and approval are two different things. You don't have to like your freckles, but they are there and you can't change that, so if you just accept or love them, you will feel a lot better than if you keep fighting the idea that they are there.


    I will give a couple of examples from my own experience. The first one has most to do with not hanging on or intensifying my emotion, and with not acting on my emotion. This situation happened several weeks ago. A close friend and I communicate only by e-mail and telephone - don't have the chance to meet in person. We had a difficult phone conversation, in which I felt I was being attacked and felt hurt and angry. And then I got a long letter from her in which she expressed her hurt and anger at me for some things I had not realized were bothering her. She asked what we should do, should we talk on  the phone and hash it all out. Or not talk for awhile. Or just move ahead and leave it behind.

    I am a person who usually likes to talk things out, and I wanted her to know my feelings.  But I decided to think on it for a few days, because I was afraid that because we couldn't meet face to face, there would be more misunderstanding. I decided that saving the relationship was more important than airing my feelings (not hanging onto my feelings). I suggested to her that we both go on from where we were, instead of talking about the anger and hurt feelings, and who did what when, and she agreed. And that's what we did. We just had a conversation like all our other conversations (not acting on feelings). I think that it saved our relationship, and the bonus is that the anger and hurt went away. I think this may be the first time that I have just let go, because the relationship mattered more to me than hanging on to my feelings.

    The other example is about more ongoing anger. I often feel angry at my youngest sister. She does and says hurtful things, not all the time, but just enough so that I feel a little on my guard. Last year there was an angry exchange about Thanksgiving that left me in tears.  I thought about acting on my anger, saying something angry back. I tend to hold on to anger, especially regarding someone I love. At that time, I decided that I did not want to lose or damage that relationship, and that I would only write to her and call her when I had positive things to say, because the other things left me feeling so bad.

    So I did not entirely let go of my anger and hurt, but I didn't feed it or act on it. The same thing has happened a couple more times since. After planning what angry or hurt thing I was going to do or say, I  remembered my plan to only say positive things, and I can say that although the anger and hurt don't go away right away, the suffering does go away,  and as in the other situation, I still have a relationship.

    I am not saying that this is always the way to handle a problem relationship, but this was what I have chosen in this particular situation, with this particular person (I should maybe add that I don't think most of what she had said was deliberate), and it has worked to lessen my suffering and eventually to allow me to let go of my painful feelings.

    It might be that you would choose to hash out a difficult situation with someone, or to let them know your feelings, but you can still choose to not hang on to your anger, to not make it bigger.


    This is difficult stuff. It takes time and lots of practice to get the hang of it, and more practice to get it to be a natural response to pain for you. I suggest that you pick one small thing to try, and try it in a simple situation (for example, how you feel when the mail is late, or how you feel when you lose a favorite piece of jewelry or how you feel if you get scared watching a horror movie).

    These are skills that are going to make it easier for you to live with the feelings that come up from day to day, and also the long-standing painful feelings that you have.


  • Observe your emotion. Stand back.
  • Experience your emotion as a wave, coming and going.
  • Don't push away your emotion. Accept it.
  • Don't judge your emotion. It's not good or bad
  • Don't hang on to your emotion.
  • Try not to intensify your emotion. Let it be how it is.
  • Remember that you are not your emotion.
  • Remember that you don't necessarily have to act on your emotion.
  • Practice loving your emotions.

  • Remember that you are a courageous person for doing this work, and that you deserve and will have success and move closer to a happier and more fulfilling life.