“I shouldn’t feel this way”, “I’m just an anxious person”, “I can’t have a healthy relationship”, “something’s wrong with me”…
I hear these statements time and time again. Clients often come to therapy with the goal of ‘getting rid’ of uncomfortable emotions or fixing what’s ‘wrong’ with them. Of course, this makes sense. Who wouldn’t want to rid themselves of emotions or behaviors that seem to get in the way of happiness?
Unfortunately, this is an unwinnable war; a war in which we take on the role of both hero and villain. Continuously engaging in these internal battles day in and day out only drains our resources and creates needless suffering.
So, why did this war even begin? How did many of us become our own worst enemy?
Throughout our lives we collect beliefs about what is “good” and “bad” to do, say, think, and be. These judgments usually come from experiences in which we expressed ourselves and were met with rejection or punishment.
For instance, if you spoke up with curiosity in school and your classmates told you your question was ‘stupid’. Or, maybe your teacher chastised you for speaking out of turn. From this experience, you might have internalized a view that “speaking up gets me in to trouble”, or “my point of view is unimportant”. As a result, you may have developed a tendency to ‘fly under the radar’ to protect yourself from feeling rejection or embarrassment again.
Maybe you yelled at your sibling for taking your things without asking, and your parents reprimanded your expression of anger. Meanwhile, your sibling’s behavior seemed to be ignored. From this instance, you might have reached conclusions such as “anger is unacceptable” or, “I can’t trust or depend on others”. You may have carried on with silent resentment, distancing yourself from others to avoid hurt and betrayal.
Experiences such as these, along with those in which we received praise or positive reinforcement compound throughout our lives. Eventually, we establish a strong sense of what is ‘acceptable’ and what is not. These beliefs tend to guide our self-expression whether we are aware of it or not. They also form the building blocks of our ego, our sense of self-esteem or self-importance.
The problem is, these beliefs can lead us far from our authentic self, our truth.
If unhelpful or rigid internalized beliefs go unchallenged, we will likely lead an unfulfilling life. Because, many of those beliefs are not our own. We would be living a life ruled by others’ expectations and perceptions instead of our own values.
However, digging up the parts of ourselves we have buried out of self-preservation is no small feat. Essentially, we are dismantling a carefully curated ‘ideal’ image of our self. An image that has kept us safe from re-experiencing uncomfortable emotions. Finding and integrating these parts means letting ourselves experience and acknowledge aspects of our self that we believe are unacceptable.
You might be thinking, ‘that sounds awful’, ‘no thanks’. That reaction is normal. There are often layers of fear and shame surrounding these beliefs. Our minds develop extraordinary tactics to protect us from painful experiences. So, it’s only natural to have an urge to avoid confronting these unhelpful beliefs.
The more we try to avoid, deny, or suppress- the more power these unwanted parts exert.
For instance, if you carry the belief that ‘anger is unacceptable’, what happens to the anger? Anger is unavoidable, you will feel it again, and again, and again. But, you are not ‘allowed’ to express the anger. Maybe you stuff it away, smile on the outside, while the anger slowly simmers. Eventually, it reaches a boiling point. And then, that part of you that has remained hidden will surface.
Because you have no experience in responding to or managing anger, it’s likely not a pretty sight. You might destroy your belongings, belittle your loved ones, or hurt yourself. Maybe you desperately attempt to stuff it back in to its hole for a while by numbing the emotion with drugs or alcohol. Eventually, the anger will return, and as long as you label it the ‘enemy’, the unwinnable war will rage on.
Emotions, memories, thoughts, etc. are not our enemies. They are visitors with lessons to share.
If we want to change and grow, we have to know ourselves. To know ourselves, we have to become allies with every part of our self. Our anger, fear, sadness, loneliness, every part. Only then can we respond out of intention rather than impulse. Only then can we truly be whole. This means observing, accepting, and understanding all that we have disowned.
In reality there is no such thing as a “good” or “bad” emotion, thought, sensation, etc. After all, without anger, how would we confront injustice? Without fear, how would we survive? Without sadness, how could we know gratitude? Without discomfort, how would we grow?
I encourage you to just begin by noticing, observing and learning a bit more about your internal experience. Seeing what’s under the surface from a stance of curiosity instead of judgment or fear. You can utilize this technique to start:
Mindfulness of Emotions
Start by bringing your attention to your breath. Notice your breathing as you slowly breathe in and out, perhaps imagining you have a balloon in your belly, noticing the sensations in your belly as the balloon inflates on the in-breath, and deflates on the out-breath.
Notice the feelings, and what it feels like.
Name the emotion:
- What is it?
- What word best describes what you are feeling?
- Angry, sad, anxious, irritated, scared, frustrated…
- Accept the emotion. It’s a normal body reaction. It can be helpful to understand how it came about – what it was, the set of circumstances that contributed to you feeling this way. Don’t condone or judge the emotion. Simply let it move through you without resisting it, struggling against it, or encouraging it.
Investigate the emotion.
- How intensely do you feel it?
- How are you breathing?
- What are you feeling in your body? Where do you feel it?
- What’s your posture like when you feel this emotion?
- Where do you notice muscle tension?
- What’s your facial expression? What does your face feel like?
- Is anything changing? (nature, position, intensity)
What thoughts or judgements do you notice? Just notice those thoughts. Allow them to come into your mind, and allow them to pass. Any time you find that you’re engaging with the thoughts – judging them or yourself for having them, believing them, struggling against them, just notice, and bring your attention back to your breathing, and to the physical sensations of the emotion.
If any other emotions come up, if anything changes, simply notice and repeat the steps above. Just notice that the feelings change over time.
This is and example of the first step: awareness. As you become more familiar with your whole internal experience, you become less afraid. You can begin to see first-hand that the emotion is just that, an emotion. It arises, it may feel uncomfortable, but eventually it recedes, or lessens just enough for us to respond differently.
Let’s look once more at the example of anger. Continuing to stuff it away means anger will always be a stranger, frightening you by showing up ‘unexpectedly’. But, if you became intimately familiar with the triggers of your anger, how it shows up in your body, as well as what beliefs and thoughts serve as the fuel then it’s probably not so surprising or frightening when it arrives. You may even realize its coming before it reaches the boiling point. And, eventually be able to clearly express to others what you’re feeling so that the issue is resolved.
We are all fellow travelers, carrying our own baggage. The journey may be challenging at times, but you might be pleasantly surprised by what you discover along the way and where you land.
If you decide you’d like some help navigating, I am here to assist in exploring the murky waters. Reach out, and we can plot a course together.