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Thread: Dealing with difficult emotions

  1. #1
    Forums Member federica17's Avatar
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    Dealing with difficult emotions

    Hi everyone!

    So, this morning (it's Monday) I had to write an email to my supervisor (I am a PhD student). She and I do not have a good relationship and it has always caused me a big anxiety to interact with her.
    I spent the whole weekend obsessing about the email, and how I should write it, and what she would answer and what were all the possible scenarios that would open up. This morning I spent two hours drowning in my anxiety about it.

    Now, of course I tried to understand how I should handle this from a Buddhist point of view.
    The first thing that came to my mind is: "You should not try to make this emotion go away or resist it. You should not tell yourself that you're not supposed to be anxious or that it is just a stupid email and there's no reason to freak out about it. Let the anxiety be there. Know that it will pass and just accept that this is how you feel right now. You cannot "solve" it, you just have to be here with it without identifying with it."
    The second thing that came to my mind is: "Try to use gentle curiosity. Try to see how this feels, where it is in the body, and try maybe to do some sitting meditation. Stay in the present." I tried to inquire as how it feels inside my chest and stomach, and then I tried to do sitting meditation but all I could do was reformulating the email in my head and thinking about how my supervisor would react and so on and so I decided to stop the session because it was just fueling my anxiety with thoughts.
    Essentially my emotion stayed the same, the difference was maybe that I tried not to consider it a problem but to be compassionate about it.

    Now what I want to ask is:
    First, is this the correct way (and by "correct" I mean "skillful" or "right" from a Buddhist point of view) to deal with these situations?
    Second, the fact that thinking all that stuff did not reduce my anxiety at all, is it fine because reducing anxiety is not the point, or maybe it means that I have not yet been practicing enough to gain a greater capacity to train my mind in dealing with difficult emotions?

    Thanks to all of you and metta!

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    If you were being mindful you would perhaps need to ask yourself that if the situation was reversed, what kind of email would you want to receive from a PhD student? I don't mean not telling the truth of the matter but, given what you want to convey, how would you like the email to be worded if you were reading it?

  3. #3
    Forums Member federica17's Avatar
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    Thanks for the suggestion. Yes, I did think about it, and I tried to account for all the differences between me and her and how I supposed that she herself, rather than me in her shoes, would like to be addressed. This is probably useful, but what I am most interested in is understanding how to react to the difficult emotions that interacting with her makes me feel, rather than how to better interact with her - not because that is not important, but only because I am already doing my best working on it. However, I thank you for your words, it is useful to me to always remember that it's not like just because we don't like each other I am authorized to be less than respectful to her or to give up trying to work it out entirely.

  4. #4
    Hi Federica,

    This article "Liberating Emotions" by Ajahn Sumedho might be helpful in some way:

    https://buddhismnow.com/2011/02/12/l...ajahn-sumedho/

    and also there's this little meditation book by Ajahn Amaro: "Finding the Missing Peace"

    https://cdn.amaravati.org/wp-content...jahn_Amaro.pdf




    With metta,

    Aloka

  5. #5
    Technical Administrator woodscooter's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by federica17 View Post
    ...

    Now what I want to ask is:
    First, is this the correct way (and by "correct" I mean "skillful" or "right" from a Buddhist point of view) to deal with these situations?
    Second, the fact that thinking all that stuff did not reduce my anxiety at all, is it fine because reducing anxiety is not the point, or maybe it means that I have not yet been practicing enough to gain a greater capacity to train my mind in dealing with difficult emotions?

    Thanks to all of you and metta!
    I think, federica, that you have handled your anxiety in a "correct" way. You have remembered to accept the emotion, experience how it feels, and you have done this mindfully. You've remembered to be compassionate.

    Some time ago I recognised that the practice of Buddhism doesn't provide relief from suffering. We continue to experience dukkha in all its forms until we become enlightened. For most of us that destination remains in the far future.

    You have a difficult relationship with your supervisor. That's a fact. The relationship might change or it might not.

    What you have done successfully, it seems to me, is you have dealt with the situation as best you can. You've kept calm, remained analytical. You've not been dominated by a purely emotional response. You have put your practice into action and it's helped you cope with it. Full marks!

    Your PhD supervisor is not going to be the only "difficult" person you will meet as your life progresses. She may be this way because she thinks you will achieve more when driven like this. She might be wrong about you. In the end, we can't change others, only ourselves. Your supervisor is giving you a great opportunity to apply Buddhist practice in a stressful environment.

    You are already doing fine. Keep it going!

  6. #6
    Forums Member CoachDonSul's Avatar
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    federica's post was an excellent example of how we often use fear as a distraction. A case of the mind keeping us from dealing with our emotions. My guess is that the real issue she needs to deal with is her anger at her supervisor. Only she could say or know for sure.

    That anger, as she notes, has a history that supersedes her current anxiety; but rather than deal effectively with it she lets herself get distracted by the fear that she is generating and she does not want to take responsibility for either emotion.

    I’m sure some would argue that the two emotions are not connected in the way that I have suggested. I would argue that anger is the primary emotion because anger is an immediate emotion while fear, anxiety, is a created emotion based on the minds ability to predict based on some past perception and interpretation of an earlier effects.

    If she would deal with her anger it is likely the fear that she is now experiencing would disappear. I would also suggest that while meditation might be a tool for dealing with fear; anger is best dealt with in the moment by truthful and open communication.
    Last edited by CoachDonSul; 10 May 19 at 05:44.

  7. #7
    Forums Member federica17's Avatar
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    Wow, thanks to all of you for so many interesting answers!

    Aloka, thanks both for the article and the booklet. The latter I have downloaded and I will start reading it today, I am very curious because, since I do not have a sangha where I live, I am always looking for meditation guides and this one is new to me. About the article, it is interesting that you would suggest it to me because acceptance is probably my biggest problem (and fundamentally the main reason why I came to Buddhism in the first place). I have trouble acknowledging that life does not need to be the way I would like it to be, and the example of the woman crying - I'll quote it here for other readers who may not have opened the article:

    "A woman came to me once—a well-educated woman—and she was in a very emotional state. She started crying and said, ‘I’m so sorry, I know I’m being foolish. I’m just being so foolish and stupid.’ Then she cried again and said, ‘I know this is ridiculous, but I can’t help it.’ Her intellect didn’t approve of this at all; the intellect was being hard line: You shouldn’t be crying. You shouldn’t be doing that, just weeping and soft. You’re losing control. You’re disgracing yourself. One can be very hard and tyrannical on the intellectual plane: If I were a really together woman and got my act together, I wouldn’t be weeping and crying like this; I’d have control of myself. But look at me! I’m a mass of jelly in front of this monk. He must think I’m just another one of those emotional women. We can be very cruel to ourselves, very judgmental: I shouldn’t be like this. I shouldn’t feel these kinds of feelings. If I were a decent person I would never have done the things I’ve done. Inner tyrants are relentlessly hard, cruel and judgmental. That is the intellectual mind thinking in terms of how things should be. (...) The habits that we have acquired, the emotional habits, the way we react to praise and blame, success and failure, sickness and health, prosperity, depression and elation and all these things, are not rational; they are not ideal. The intellect is rational, but emotions are like this. You can be blubbering on the floor, a mass of jelly. That is not being reasonable or rational, is it? So then your rational mind can be critical and say, You shouldn’t be like this. It can judge according to ideals."

    This part really struck me because that's the way I feel. Maybe you were thinking about my supervisor as a difficult person in my life, but the really hard part in dealing with her has not much to do with her. It has to do with me, and how I hate the kind of person I become, and the fear and anxiety I feel. I would love to be the kind of person that can just put up with her and go home and feel ok, instead of feeling sick.

    And this also connects to CoachDonSul's answer (thank you!). Do I experience anger towards her? Of course I do. Your suggestion that the real problem might be the anger instead of the anxiety felt disturbing to me, and for this reason I tried to inquire into it and see whether you've got something there. It is entirely possible that I am confused about my emotions, but being completely honest with myself and with you I would say that's not the case, at least in my experience. I say this because when I have something to do with her the two emotions are usually inverted: the first immediate reaction I have is fear, and then anger may come, when I think something like "I shouldn't be so afraid of talking with you, you shouldn't make me feel this way, it's not fair." But that comes after, and it usually goes away fast because I know that she's doing her best, and I'm doing my best, and it's not her fault if I take it so bad. Of course if I could use "truthful and open communication", as you say, to solve the problems in our relationship then I wouldn't feel so anxious everytime, and that would be the best solution for both of us, but unfortunately I am not able to do this.

    Woodscoter, thank you so much for your kind words and encouragement. It is true that I remembered to be compassionate, to accept the emotion, and to put my practice into use, even if a part of my mind still went like: "I am being compassionate and accepting, now why doesn't that make the bad feeling go away?" which is ironic in a way. But I think this is the path to follow and even if at the beginning it still feels confused (I have been practicing for about seven months), with time and practice clarity will come. It is good for my heart to know that I can discuss what I feel and how I react with you on this forum.

  8. #8
    Quote Originally Posted by federica17
    Aloka, thanks both for the article and the booklet
    You're very welcome federica - and you can find more words of Buddhist wisdom from both Ajahn Sumedho and Ajahn Amaro in the form of free books, as well as videos and audio recordings of talks they've given, on this website:

    https://www.amaravati.org/book-autho...guages=english




  9. #9
    Forums Member Element's Avatar
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    I have not read all of the posts here but the problem here does not appear to be a problem where only Buddhism can offer a solution. This problem appears to be a common professional (university) problem and can be addressed via professional or university means. In other words, the relationship problem between a supervisor and PHD student needs to be addressed rather than any emotional reactions to the problem. A teacher & student must have a proper relationship. Each must trust, respect & have good-will towards each other and do their duty towards one another. While a PHD relationship is not exactly a "teacher-student" relationship, in still needs to have a quality of nurturing by the supervisor; that allows the student to be at ease & to concentrate on their PHD. For example, the Buddhist teaching on teacher-student relationships is:

    In five ways, young householder, a pupil should minister to a teacher as the South:

    (i) by rising from the seat in salutation,
    (ii) by attending on him,
    (iii) by eagerness to learn,
    (iv) by personal service,
    (v) by respectful attention while receiving instructions.

    In five ways, young householder, do teachers thus ministered to as the South by their pupils, show their compassion:


    (i) they train them in the best discipline,
    (ii) they see that they grasp their lessons well,
    (iii) they instruct them in the arts and sciences,
    (iv) they introduce them to their friends and associates,
    (v) they provide for their safety in every quarter.

    https://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipi...31.0.nara.html

  10. #10
    Forums Member Element's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by federica17 View Post
    I spent the whole weekend obsessing about the email, and how I should write it, and what she would answer and what were all the possible scenarios that would open up. This morning I spent two hours drowning in my anxiety about it.
    Hello Federica. Is there a student guidance service at the University that can help you write a professional & appropriate email to your supervisor or engage in mediation between you? Regards


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