Feeling your feelings
As children, we experience many messages designed to tell us that emotional states are either positive or negative. 'Positive' emotions such as happiness, laughter and love are encouraged. However 'negative' emotions such as pain, fear, sadness and anger are discouraged with parents telling their children “stop crying” or “it doesn’t hurt that much” or “stop being a baby”. Often there is an element of bribery with the child being promised something positive in return for supressing this “negative” emotional state.
In the adult world, these messages continue where people truly believe that it is wrong to experience certain feelings and then try to use positive thoughts or reward based actions to bury or disassociate from these 'negative' emotions.
On a day-to-day basis, this may work well; thinking of the cold pint of beer after work to get you through a hard day or how great your body will look when trying to motivate yourself to go to the gym, etc. However for those who experience reoccurring episodes of depression, anxiety, stress and anger, these techniques, whilst providing short-term relief can actually be rather harmful in the long-term.
Denying or burying these unpleasant feelings allows the person to temporarily disconnect from them. However the truth is, no matter how deeply the emotions are buried, the belief, idea or trauma which initially caused them still remains which means in the long term, those feelings will keep on returning. You may like to think of it as a weed growing in the garden. If you just cut off the stem at ground level, on the surface the weed appears to have gone. However, below the surface, the roots remain. And ultimately, that weed will return over and over and over again until you decide to deal with what lies below the surface; pulling it up at the roots.
So what’s the solution? If using cognitive techniques and positive thinking to bury these emotions doesn’t work in the long term, what can you do? How can you begin to tackle those roots and how can you improve your life for the long haul?
A powerful method used in therapy teaches people to sit with these unpleasant emotions in an attempt to acknowledge and understand them. That’s not to say to dwell on negative feelings or become immersed in them, but at the same time, not to block them out either. You could think of it as watching a lightning storm out of your bedroom window. You are safe enough from the lightning inside your house, but at the same time, you are allowing yourself to see it and experience it (rather than shutting the curtains and hiding under your bed covers!)
Think back to the last time when you had a really upsetting problem or were really angry and you decided to speak to a good friend about it. Did your friend sit with you, listen to you talk about your feelings and offers empathy and understanding? Or did they blank out your emotional state and start firing practical solutions at you? A majority of true friends would do the former, and from experience, you’ll probably realise how helpful this approach was in helping you come to terms with your feelings and decide upon the right course of action.
So the question is, if a friend sitting with you, listening to your emotions and acting in an empathic and understanding way is much more helpful than a friend who fires practical solutions at you, why do you act in a different way within yourself? Why do you ignore your own painful emotional state or try to block it with practical solutions rather than sitting with your feelings, listen to them and being empathic towards yourself?
Very often, feeling your feelings, sitting with them and understanding and accepting all emotional states as being fundamentally "okay" can provided great personal insights and relief. So next time you experience fear, anger, sadness, despair, loneliness or any other negative feeling, why not give it a go yourself? Rather than covering up and burying these emotions, try sitting with them for a while, tolerating the discomfort, learning from those feelings and really understanding that part of yourself. You may just be surprised at what you find!
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About Gareth Sammer
I am a counsellor, hypnotherapist and psychotherapist based in West London with practices in Chiswick, Ealing and Kew. I specialise in transactional analysis psychotherapy, CBT techniques, weight-loss hypnotherapy and smoking cessation hypnosis.