Ah those darn feelings. They are so pesky aren’t they? If we didn’t have them, would we ever need a profession called psychotherapy? I am geeking out on neuroscience and evolutionary biology as it relates to emotions the last few weeks.
Some would argue, “Can’t we get by without negative emotions?” But emotions that some of us don’t enjoy, others do. So which ones are negative and positive? I am not a scary movie junkie but sign me up for a tear-jerker any day – while some of my closest friends love getting scared out of their minds. So even the bad emotions aren’t bad to everyone. They add a certain spice or vitality to our lives and they motivate and connect us. They protect us from harm by apprasing danger well.
So why do so many people avoid feelings? The problem, as I see it from my work as a therapist and a client, is we are fundamentally not skilled at how to feel what we feel as body sensation or raw energy of experience without the judgement of positive or negative, good or bad feelings. How does one learn to sit still in the heat of anger and rage, intensity of grief and loss, sadness, despair, disgust, or expansive pleasure and joy? There seems to be this repeated shutting off of select feelings. I witnessed a mother tell her kid the other day that he was only allowed to be angry in his room by himself. No judgement of the mom. I am one, so I get the edges we are pushed to AND this exemplifies what tracks are getting laid down in that kid’s brain towards the emotion of anger. I have a four year old and he is just so “big” right now. “Look at me”, “I win, you lose” etc. For some parents this expansion and sheer joy of a four year old needs to be punished or quieted and with that another set of tracks get laid down related to that kid’s sense of entitlement joy and expansion.
In addition to what we learn from the past there are many other causes to why humans can be opposed to feeling emotions. To name a few: shutting off of all emotions right now as a way to guard against facing something difficult happening right now, our brain/nervous system were wired to inhibit certain feelings, like the boy above, sometimes before we could even talk, or just plain old DNA that makes us super sensitive so we shut off because it is hard to experience our sensitivities. There are many many more examples. What are yours? Add to these that being an emotional being in a western tradition that values the rational over the emotional and voila! emotionally repressed or constipated we become. The end result: we clamp back this emotional electricity or life force from coursing through our bodies and then our bodies get used to all the funky patterns of shut off. We clamp, clutch, hold back, hold in, shrink etc and problems ensue in physical and/or psychological forms. Depression, stomach problems, sleep problems, anxiety, panic etc.
Paul Ekman who is a researcher I like to geek out on who has been studying emotions and facial expressions for a long time says we don’t have much control over what we become emotional about but we can change our behavior in response to what we feel and in some cases we can change the triggers. Did you know that our emotions can triumph over hunger, sex and our will to live because they are that wired into our survival?
According to Ekman, these 9 things below cause us to feel emotional:
1. Auto appraisal – that fast knee jerk, fear response when a car slams on its brakes or the rage that may ensue when someone tries to attack us. But sometimes this is educated as is reflective appraisal in two by stories from our past that wired our brain to respond to certain triggers in patterned ways.
2. Reflective appraisal – we think about something and then conjure up the feelings. “10% of the workforce is getting laid off.” How do I feel if that is me? Weighing the pros and cons.
3. Talking about/remembering the past brings up emotion – and often the very emotions we felt back then.
4. Empathy – when we hear someone else out and they are laughing hysterically or sobbing, we feel similar emotions.
5. Imagination/entertainment – thus springs all creativity right?
6. Instructions about what to feel – we learn what to feel by our early caregivers…be afraid of falling, be afraid of crowds etc. Emotional habits, if you will.
7. Witnessing social norm violation – not even universal social norms, could even be your own family’s social norms – we feel emotions when those norms are being violated. I found this one fascinating.
8. Copying the facial expression, tone and body language of that emotion. I remember having a colleague who was an actor playing an emotional part on a show running for several years. He said it was grueling because night after night he was awash in feelings of rage and despair, the feelings of that character.
All of the above are being worked on, with and through in psychotherapy. I fundamentally believe we have to feel in order to heal in therapy – it is what ultimately rewires the brain’s appraisal process and neuroscience is proving this out. In psychotherapy, we feel, we are responded to differently than our past, we try out a new way of relating from those feelings and we then shift the patterns that caused us to enter therapy (anxiety, depression, commitment phobia etc). What that means is, we can’t just think our way out of our psychological pain, we really do have to feel it and work it through in relationship and support our bodies as they do the heavy lifting of all this emotional action.
I guess that makes my job, at different times, an emotional personal trainer. Stay tuned for my next posting on the opposite of shutting off emotions when I talk about runnaway emotions…the ones that take over .