Do you process your emotions in a healthy way? Not me, I’m a bottler…

I’ve downed tools for this post in order to do more processing myself and in order to ensure I practice what I preach – so this post is more personal than previous ones. I hope you’re able to relate to it on a personal level and that it doesn’t come across as egotistical. My aim to encourage openness, conversation and sharing – rather than ego – it’s not meant to be all about me – I hope I manage to achieve that. So I’ve put all of the books away, the kindle, audio books, articles and am writing this based on what I’m actually experiencing at the moment.

I started seeing a therapist last August because I was stuck in a cycle of stress, anxiety, headaches, sadness and withdrawal from my social circles. This had been going on for years. I’m a social person and human connection is really important to me so it was causing me considerable emotional, psychological and physical pain.  I finally acknowledged that this wasn’t going to just resolve itself and that I needed to tackle it head-on. To start with I just read about psychology, neuroscience and spirituality but then realised I needed help – real help – from another person. Since seeing a therapist I’ve been feeling so much better; more supported. And this has enabled me to find the courage to face my shadow self, my demons. The need to feel supported wasn’t necessarily because my family and friends are unable or unwilling to support me but rather – I don’t actually ask for help and I rarely show my real, authentic self to anyone so how can I expect anyone to support me? You could argue those around me could also reach out but if I’m the one who needs support then I have to take responsibility for asking for it be it directly or through showing my real feelings. I now understand how important this is for my well being. I need the kind of relationships where I can truly be myself; warts and all. I can’t pretend to be positive all the time anymore – I need permission to be happy, joyful, content, ecstatic, sad, angry, frustrated, irritable, disappointed, doubtful, anxious, down etc. And all without judgement. Well society isn’t going to hand this to me on a plate so I’m taking it for myself. I’m going to be authentic, genuine, truly myself at home, at work, in my community and with my friends. Tough shit if you don’t like it. And if you can’t handle it – that’s OK – I won’t take it personally. How I respond to how you respond to me is also my responsibility.

I hereby give myself permission to be ME. Wholly and wholeheartedly me.

My therapist has helped me to realise that I’ve been avoiding pretty much all negative emotion and instead of feeling negative emotions I bury them, suppress them, avoid them, deny them. And even when I choose to engage with them I think about them rather than feel them. I intellectualise them, rationalise them, theorise about them. I’m even quite good at talking about them but somehow I still manage to do so without actually feeling them. OMG – how is that possible?!?!

I’ve been doing meditation for about five years and yoga daily for two but still somehow have been managing to hold on to those emotions rather than simply seeing them, feeling them and letting them go. It’s not that I never process them now – I am learning to but I still often get lost in thoughts and feelings that trigger more thoughts and feelings – generating stress that otherwise wouldn’t be there. It doesn’t exist outside me it’s all inside me – all within my control. Before I would have been completely unaware of this going on and would at some point have told myself to get it together; suppressing it all and distracting myself through some activity or other. It’s a journey to be sure but it’s an interesting, challenging and at times incredibly satisfying one. I know that I’m learning an important skill because I can feel it and once mastered I also know it’s one that will help me to stay psychologically, emotionally and even physically well.

The stress I’ve been causing myself began to show itself in my body a few years ago and since having my son – it got so much worse. Yoga and walking alleviated it some but never got rid of it completely. My therapist mentioned the concept of holding emotion in the body and so I looked into it and it made sense so I started using my meditation training and yoga practice to focus on releasing emotion from my hips. The result is at times surprising. I groan, I almost cry, I actually cry: sometimes a little, sometimes a lot and sometimes the flood gates open and it seems it’ll never stop. In the beginning it felt dramatic – that I was allowing myself to indulge in something that was over the top; melodramatic or that my life was just downright awful (I knew this wasn’t actually true) but then I’d feel the release, the relief and I knew it had to be the right thing to be doing simply because it felt right. My intuition – my authentic self is telling me it’s real –  it’s good for me and that there’s no shame in it – there’s no shame in being vulnerable and real.

Some helpful resources on how to process emotion

Here are a few resources that I’ve found really helpful in learning to engage with and process my own emotions. There are many many tools around to help with this so this list is by no means exhaustive but is a good start.

Alain de Botton – founder of the School of Life has created this short and easy to understand video about processing emotions

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b197XOd9S7U&vl=en

Viktor Frankl’s stimulus – response model

This model is referred to by many professionals in the psychology and coaching fields. Frankl was a psychiatrist who developed this model whilst in a concentration camp living in appalling conditions having survived torture and the loss of most of his family. Frankl is credited with saying the following:

Between stimulus and response there is space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.

In case this needs further explanation –  it means that whatever we perceive in our environment – if we manage to stay aware of what’s going on inside us – we can create whatever space we need in order to see what’s happening inside us as it happens and to make a conscious choice about how we respond. Most, if not all, of us develop automatic patterns of behaviour as coping strategies to new and difficult experiences in life and unless we’re in the moment in this way we respond automatically which can feel like a loss of control and can result in unnecessary stress, anxiety, embarrassment, shame, regret, losing face and so on.

Stephen Covey’s stimulus – response model

Stephen Covey was a personal and professional coach for twenty years and he described the stimulus and response model in the following way:

covey-stimulus-response

Covey talks about response-ability by which he means the ability to choose how to respond but also the necessity to recognise that we alone are responsible for our thoughts, feelings and behaviour; that we can not blame our feelings or conditions for our behaviour and actions.

Jason Satterfield’s Appraisals worksheet

Jason Satterfield is a psychologist specialising in cognitive behavioural therapy where he aims to help people like me to recognise and engage with patterns of thoughts, feelings and behaviour. In order to do this he developed an appraisals worksheet. The purpose of the worksheet is to help us create the necessary space (as mentioned above in the stimulus – response model) to consciously correct existing patterns of thoughts, feelings and behaviour so that the next time automatic patterns are triggered we are better prepared in advance to replace those old patterns or neural pathways with new and improved ones.

A five-step tool for understanding emotions

The image below is from psychologist Phil Meek’s website where he’s published a really nice concise and easy overview of simple and complex emotions including images showing where we feel them in the body as well as a diagram that shows both simple and complex emotions and how they relate to one another. He also goes into detail about each of the five steps. It worth reading.

processing-emotions-image

From psychologist Phil Meek’s website

Meditation and yoga

Meditation and yoga are two more ways of creating the space we need in order to process our emotions. Taking time out of our busy lives and focussing on this work are essential. Personally I think the benefit is felt from doing this regularly – it really needs to become part of our routine to have an impact. I find meditation and yoga most effective if I do it daily and in the morning. I find it much easier to motivate myself and create new habits in the morning – the day is just too busy – and then in the evening my motivation wanes considerably. When I miss a couple of days or more – I really feel it: two weeks and I’m back to stressed out and preoccupied. Once I’ve done my routine in the morning – even if I felt grumpy, stiff and sorry for myself when I woke up – even if I haven’t slept well – I feel good, positive and ready tackle the day head-on.

A few resources for yoga and meditation:

Meditation

Headspace app (I love this app – it’s an accessible and yet high quality route in to meditation)

Music for healing and meditation

Guided (spoken meditation)

I love guided meditation. Sometimes if I feel totally overwhelmed – I just lie down and let someone else do the work for me and FOR FREE! Then I can just focus on working out what’s going on, getting back to normal, relaxing, healing, getting to sleep etc. The people who lead these guided meditations have such a knack for making their listeners feel loved and supported. They also make me feel more connected to my spiritual side: nature, the world, the universe. It’s really worth giving it a try.

Yoga

  • Yoga Studio app
  • Gaia app online

We don’t allow ourselves to feel let alone share how we feel and it’s harming us

For as long as I can remember I’ve struggled with ‘stress’ or at least that’s what I’ve always called it. I’ve definitely experienced stress possibly some anxiety and probably some depression. It was never diagnosed but then I never told anyone about it. Perhaps there was nothing to diagnose. Nevertheless I was hurting and I couldn’t tell my doctor or those I was closest to – my family or my friends. I didn’t feel I could tell anyone perhaps because I hadn’t heard anyone else talking about it. I think I felt like a failure, ashamed, inadequate because I felt like this when no one else seemed to. I remember asking myself why I was lacking confidence, self-worth when those around me were all confident and able to get involved. I felt I had little of value to offer my family, friends, community – the world. I was the only one who felt like this which meant it wasn’t normal. That I wasn’t normal.

What was wrong with me? I’d had a good upbringing. We weren’t rich but we weren’t poor. We’d always had the space and freedom to play. I have fond memories at the swimming pool with my dad and of building dens in the woods with my mum. My parents were educated and I had help with school work when necessary. Meals were cooked from scratch and with love. Every bite of bread we ate was kneaded and baked by my mum’s hands.

The only thing we didn’t have was emotional honesty and openness; and this was through no real fault of our own. Our society doesn’t allow it. And it’s hurting us.

And so I went on alone struggling on and off with stress, anxiety, depression, insomnia, whatever it was until I eventually figured out that my problem was all about confidence and that I needed to start facing my fears in order to become more confident. This worked on the whole but of course I still hadn’t talked about any of these experiences and still wasn’t really talking about my feelings. I thought on and off about therapy for years but always told myself that it was too expensive and used that as an excuse to continue avoiding rather than facing my emotions.

Over the last few years I realised I was stuck in a perceptual cycle of accumulating ‘stress’ until I’d get to a point where I felt I couldn’t cope and would collapse in exhaustion and sadness and often with headaches and migraines when I’d be forced to stop and rest but then the cycle would begin again. In 2017 I was also waking up repeatedly at night due to pain in my hips and sides with no clue as to what was causing it.

“So we grow depressed about everything because we can’t feel sad about something. We can no longer sleep, insomnia being the revenge of all the many thoughts we’ve omitted to process in the day.”

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b197XOd9S7U&t=5s

In September I decided enough was enough and it was time to face this thing and so I’ve been going to weekly therapy sessions since then. It’s integrative therapy (a mixture of psychoanalysis, relational therapy and CBT) and it has helped me no end. All I’ve done so far is talk. We haven’t peeled back layer upon layer of my life nor have we done any CBT. I’ve just talked… and talked… and talked… I’ve also cried. In fact I cried so much when I was off work over Christmas and New Year that I got headaches and I thought it’d never stop. I’ve talked about things that I’ve never talked to anyone about before and have finally been able to really feel them and to let them go.

In the beginning I went with lists of things i wanted to talk about until my therapist mentioned just ‘sitting with how it feels’ as an alternative to the lists and organisation (ie need to control) and so I started to do just that. So now I’m trying to focus on how I’m feeling during therapy but also in my daily meditation and anytime I notice I am or have been feeling something.  It’s helped me to open up to family, to friends as well as to colleagues at work. I think it’s enabled me to start writing this blog – I wouldn’t have done it otherwise. In engaging with therapy (talking) I’ve created a space for myself to explore my emotions properly and to take the time I need to do that. I’ve started to recognise different emotions rather than labelling everything as stress so I’m starting to see sadness, disappointment, anger, frustration, guilt, shame and so on whereas before it was all one amorphous and inaccessible mass I called ‘stress’. I’m already seeing how this is affecting my awareness of how I think, feel and behave. I’m gaining emotional intelligence but I’ve got a long way to go yet.

I’m going to continue the focus on my emotions as well as talking to my therapist and being more emotionally open with family and friends so that I can grow and flourish. In return I am also learning how I can hold space for others because whilst they are supporting me on my journey and listening to me as I talk I also need to be able to do the same for them. I also need to give out the right signals to others so that they know I’m someone they can talk to, and rely on.

Is positivity how we should judge strength of character?

Society tells us that positive emotions are OK (as long as you don’t go too over the top or show off too much, of course) but negative emotions are not to be shown let alone shared. To be ‘normal’ is to be happy and smiling at all times and so we tell each other to “keep a stiff upper lip” and when someone manages to appear contained or positive when their situation means that they must be suffering inside we admire them for being stoical

“If you say that someone is a stoic, you approve of them because they do not complain or show they are upset in bad situations.” (Collins dictionary)

When people do show their true emotions we say they’re being over emotional or that they lack self control. Of course crying’s not allowed and if you do you’re a cry baby. And perish the thought that a boy or a man should ever show emotion because they’re likely to be told to man up because big boys don’t cry and if you do you’re crying like a girl.

What kind of messages are we giving each other? What kind of messages are we giving our children? What kind of messages are we giving ourselvesWe need to change the message.

In her compelling TED talk psychologist Susan David says that a third of people judge themselves for having negative emotions and therefore push those emotions to the side (she calls this bottling). Another tendency is to brood obsessively on our feelings where we get stuck inside our own heads and feel victimised by events that happen around us even if they really have nothing to do with us. She calls these responses emotionally rigid and encourages us instead to practice emotional agility. She’s written an entire book on the subject. It’s a surprisingly easy and very informative read. She very carefully avoids scientific language and explains everything in lay terms.

“Normal, natural emotions are now seen as good or bad. And being positive has become a new form of moral correctness. People with cancer are automatically told to just stay positive. Women, to stop being so angry. And the list goes on. It’s a tyranny. It’s a tyranny of positivity. And it’s cruel. Unkind. And ineffective. And we do it to ourselves, and we do it to others.”

“I found that a third of us — a third — either judge ourselves for having so-called “bad emotions,” like sadness, anger or even grief. Or actively try to push aside these feelings. We do this not only to ourselves, but also to people we love, like our children — we may inadvertently shame them out of emotions seen as negative, jump to a solution, and fail to help them to see these emotions as inherently valuable.”

Whether brooding or bottling it’s damaging. We’re failing to use the information our emotions are showing us to our advantage and respond in an agile and intelligent way. Instead we’re burying them or obsessing over them and holding on to them when we should be processing them and letting them go – releasing ourselves from them. In holding onto them we cause our minds and our bodies unnecessary stress and also give the message to those around us that this is the appropriate and expected behaviour.  As with my own example this messy mass of buried emotions becomes indiscernible and an increasingly heavy load to carry around with us. And it impacts every aspect of our life and the people around us.

It’s time to show up to ourselves and each other and to do so authentically. Only then will we fulfill our potential and achieve great things both individually and together.

https://www.penguin.co.uk/books/293825/emotional-agility/
emotional-agility