Reframing Your Relationship with Emotions
"What do I do with all of these emotions?!"
Like most people, I wasn’t taught to deal with emotions very well. I grew up thinking that there were “good” emotions/feelings* like happiness, peace, joy and “bad” emotions/feelings like anxiety, anger, sorrow. Along with this story, I also believed that if I was a “good” and did the “right” things, I would be happy. So, my years of depression and dysthymia were compounded with the belief that my unhappiness was somehow my fault and that I wasn’t being good enough. Honestly, emotions scared me. I saw people who seemed to have little control over their emotions and others who were completely numbed out. I didn’t realize it until much later in my life, but my fear of emotions caused me to try and bury them, especially the “bad” emotions.
In her book The Gifts of Imperfection, Brené Brown said:
“We cannot selectively numb emotions, when we numb the painful emotions, we also numb the positive emotions.”
Being unaware of this numbing phenomenon, I tried to numb the hard emotions and ended up numbing all my emotions for years. I think this pretty well defines my decades of depression.
Learning to live with my emotions
I am now in my 50’s and really just starting to learn how to live with my emotions. Recently, it became clear to me that I am an empath, which explains a lot of my childhood and the overwhelm I felt (and can still feel) with emotions. This also helps me understand why I have such an intense aversion to conflict. Basically, I was constantly overwhelmed by my own emotions and the emotions of those around me and I had no one to help me navigate the overwhelm. I also had no sense of emotional boundaries. That’s something I’m working on as well.
I'm realizing that as an empath I feel emotions of those around me easily and deeply. I had a hard time accepting that I’m an empath, at first, because I tend not to emote a lot. When I start to feel a lot of things around me, I kind of freeze or shut down. But I realize now that shutting down has just been my way of dealing with emotional overwhelm that I couldn’t even name at the time.
Currently, I’m in a place of deep healing from my depression and dysthymia. During the past six years I’ve been free of clinical depression; it’s the longest I’ve ever been depression-free. I attribute a big part of my healing to learning to accept and feel my emotions. But this has taken a lot of practice and I’m far from confident with my feelings and emotions. I still get overwhelmed by any conflict (real or perceived), anger, and anxiety. I’ve noticed that for the last several years I find myself wondering, “what do I do with my emotions?” When I’m feeling confident and content, I can embrace a broad philosophical attitude about how life is a journey, full of ups and downs, all of it to be accepted, if not celebrated. But when I’m struggling with the more unpleasant emotions, I sort of despise such rhetoric.
New relationship with emotions
When I find myself on uncertain ground, I do research. And I’ve been studying a lot about emotions. In particular, Karla McLaren’s book The Language of Emotions, Judith Orloff’s book The Empath’s Survival Guide, and Marc Brackett’s interview on Unlocking Us, on his book Permission to Feel (my next purchase…), and writings by Thich Nhat Hanh have been very helpful. There’s a common thread that I’ve found in my studies that is helping me come into a new relationship with my emotions.
First, breathe. This is always the first piece of advice.
Second, emotions/feelings are normal and natural.
Third, we are not our emotions.
Fourth, learn how to self-soothe and self-regulate.
I’m always a little stunned by the knowledge that dealing with emotions is not an innate skill, like breathing is. No one teaches us to breathe (unless you’re learning meditation and deep breathing techniques), all of us just breathe in and out all day long. But how we deal with our emotions is something we learn. It’s modeled for us, or not, as is usually the case.
Marc Brackett has devised 5 skills for emotional intelligence—RULER. These skills are:
Recognizing emotions in oneself and others
Understanding the causes and consequences of emotions
Labeling emotions with a nuanced vocabulary
Expressing emotions in accordance with cultural norms and social context
Regulating emotions with helpful strategies
Of these, I am pretty good at the first three. The last two are tough for me. As a people-pleaser, expressing my emotions feels tricky because I don’t want my emotional expression to make anyone unhappy or uncomfortable. (Now there’s a story I’m working on rewriting!) My therapist tells me to 1-acknowledge the feeling, 2-sit with it and allow myself to feel it, and 3-don’t judge the feeling or myself. These have been really helpful first steps, but I’m still always asking her—“but what do I do with the emotions?” It's this incessant question that always pops up for me.
I think this is where regulating our emotions comes in.
One main idea that Karla McLaren posits is that our emotions are there to tell us something. For instance, Anger is there to teach us that a boundary has been crossed. Sadness is there to teach us to let go. It’s quite interesting. So, recently I’ve been asking myself what my emotion is trying to tell me. It’s awkward and I don’t think I’m very good at it, but it has been interesting and helps me not feel so overwhelmed by my emotions.
Asking a different question
Still, as I’ve been contemplating the question “what do I do with the emotions”, it dawned on me that maybe I’m asking the wrong question. When I ask that question, what I’m really after is “how do I keep myself from being overwhelmed by my emotions and how do I keep my thoughts from running away with it all?” Maybe it just comes with time and practice. However, maybe a better question is “how do I get comfortable with, or at least okay with, feelings that are difficult and uncomfortable?” I think a big part of acceptance. Acceptance can feel unsatisfactory when you are looking for some sort of action to take. But that's okay.
I’m beginning to think another question that might be more useful is, “how can I just feel this?” This is tricky for me because I readily to go into meta-cognition and self-analyzing my feelings. It just might be that all my thinking about my emotions/feelings is just another way to keep me from actually feeling them. Thich Nhat Hanh said that our emotions are like water in a river. It’s as if we are standing in the river and the emotions just come and go around us. They are forever flowing around and over us. I like this metaphor. It helps me to not worry about however it is I’m feeling. He also says that we are not our emotions. That’s a big one for me.
I have a friend, Manca Klinar, who is an amazing coach working with Highly Sensitive People and she helped me think about my emotions as an energy that needs releasing somehow. Interestingly, it seems that both movement and meditation can be helpful when experiencing emotions that feel out of our control.
Even though I still struggle with experiencing and expressing all of my emotions, I am getting better. I’ve noticed that when I start to feel emotional overwhelm, I don’t immediately get anxious that I might fall back into depression. Even better, I don’t get depressed. And I am finding that although I still tend to fixate on how horrible things are when I’m overwhelmed with emotions or feeling a lot of the uncomfortable feelings, I don’t fixate for as long as I used to. And I automatically start taking some deep breaths. These are good things, right? Granted, they are baby steps, but I’m good with baby steps—it’s the only way to start. Maybe someday I’ll be the equivalent of a marathon runner when it comes to feeling, expressing, and regulating my emotions, but it all starts with those first, little, maybe even timid, steps.
What do you do with your emotions? I’d love to hear from you and find out what tricks and tools you use to help you through the more uncomfortable emotions.
*For the sake of this post I’m using emotions and feelings interchangeably, however, as I understand it, an emotion is a physiological response our body/brain has to stimuli, while a feeling is our conscious awareness of an emotion.