There’s an interesting belief out there that we can “fix” our emotions so that we don’t feel sad, angry or afraid. Some people say, “Don’t worry, be happy.” I love that song, it’s fun, catchy and upbeat. It does put me in a good mood when I hear it BUT that is not the answer to my fear. Just pretend it’s not there? I don’t think so. Some say, “Count to ten and then your anger will go away.” Yes, that can be a useful technique to keep one from doing something hurtful to another, but it is not the answer for why the anger is there in the first place. If you are sad you might hear, “Just think of how good your life is compared to someone worse off than you.” And that is supposed to lift your sadness? While each of those phrases has been useful to some, not one of them addresses the deeper need of the person or the emotion. Each is more of a band-aide to get through the moment and pretend you’re fine.
These ideas of getting rid of our emotions exist in varying forms in different cultures and spiritual beliefs. I am a believer in God. I am focused on yielding to God and allowing him to work through me, to change me, to guide me into becoming a person who genuinely loves with my words and actions. My growth on this journey does not mean that now I don’t feel anymore. In fact, I feel more deeply now than when I lived on autopilot: doing things my way but not consciously. Sometimes I hear people say that to heal from our sadness, anger or fear, we must pray more, read more, draw closer to God. I believe all of those are helpful in connecting with God, gaining a deeper understanding of who he is and who we are in relationship to him; however, they are not the antidote to our emotional states.
I believe the “antidote” to our emotional state is found in acknowledging that it is there, not in attempting to get rid of it. It is the concept of acceptance. Accept where you are at the moment. Identify it. Ask yourself the question, “What am I feeling?” In Anger and Sadness and Fear, Oh My! I wrote about the emotion clusters and challenged readers to come up with emotion identifiers. This would be a good time to use those. Look at the range of words describing joy, anger, sadness and fear then determine which one best captures where you are at in that moment. Say it aloud to yourself, “I feel intimidated right now.” This helps create a connection with your emotion.
In understanding ourselves better and developing greater awareness, it’s important to look at our cognitive (thought) state in addition to our emotional state. To do this, ask yourself what you have been thinking or what just happened that may be connected to the emotion you are feeling right now. In my example of feeling intimidated, I would check in with why I might be feeling that. For example, perhaps I just had a conversation with another counselor who seemed to have a much better understanding of the theoretical foundations of therapy. An automatic response for me in that type of situation is to think less of myself. That would explain why I was feeling intimidated.
Now that I understand the connection between my experience and my feelings, it’s imperative that I validate my emotion. Does it make sense that I feel intimidated when I perceive someone to be intellectually superior to me? Yes, it does. Sure, there are words of encouragement we might say to someone else or to ourselves to “make us feel better” but now is not the time. If we jump to that, we perpetuate the band-aide mentality and we don’t get to the root of the problem. At this point, let yourself feel what you are feeling. I would then notice the intimidation, what it feels like, and explore why I’m feeling it. “I feel less than, like I’m just not good enough.” Now we are getting to a root.
Where does this come from, this belief that I am not good enough? For me, I didn’t get noticed very much as a child. My parents provided my basic needs for survival but forgot about my emotional needs. I spent most of my life trying to be enough for others and incorrectly figuring out what I needed to do in my quest for acceptance. In a situation with someone I perceive as superior to me, I go to a deflated state. I feel hopeless because I think, “I can’t compete here. I’ll never be enough for this person.” This is where I need to do some work. For me, this required working with a therapist to not only understand these connections all the way back to my foundations but to get outside perspective on what’s true versus the incorrect and damaging beliefs I perpetuate. I’m not so sure this can happen in a vacuum. I firmly believe we need to bring professional help into this part of our healing.
Now that you understand the why’s behind the thought and the emotion, you can continue with the healing process. As I’m standing there, aware of my emotion of intimidation – a mix of fear, sadness and anger – I can address it. It might sound a bit like this for me: “Ah, yes here you are. That part of me that feels less than. You showed up when I was little and I tried to make sense of the world on my own. If I’m not good enough then I have to beat myself up. From the beat up place, I decide I don’t like this person. She made me feel bad about myself, she’s the enemy. That way I don’t have to be around her, because now she’s “bad” in my eyes, and I can bring myself back up to “good.” That is my unhealthy response. The truth is, I may not be as smart as this person, but that does not define my worth. I can appreciate this individual’s brilliance on the subject of therapy, be thankful that our civilization has people who know more than I do, and still value what I bring to the table. Each of us has something to offer that makes the world a better place. For some, their contribution is more visible than others, but that doesn’t alter in any way the value we each bring to one another. Ahhh, that intimidated feeling is dissipating and I can begin to hear this person without the distraction of my “less than belief” getting in the way.”
Without using a band-aide, this process encourages feeling our emotions and moving forward. The identified emotion and the discovered thought behind it create a connection for why the emotion rose to the surface. The underlying beliefs that triggered the emotional response were addressed and brought into a healthier focus. With a view that is based more in reality, the emotion began to disappear. The fuel that sparked the emotion is gone for now, replaced by an understanding of the hurtful reality of the spark.
This process, while incredibly freeing, is not easy and does not happen overnight. It takes professional help and repetition to become adept at utilizing the process. After about 8 years of walking on this awareness path, I am much better at using the skill I have described. I don’t use the skill flawlessly and I don’t use it all the time. I do not encourage perfection as the goal, just a general trend toward positive change and growth. The next time you are aware of an emotion you are feeling, feel free to give this awareness technique a try. Remember, you may need a counselor who advocates awareness or mindfulness and looking at your past to help you understand why you are responding the way you are. Here’s to no more band-aides!
Disclaimer: There are some emotional states that require medication not this process to find healing. In those circumstances, please seek the help of a mental health professional.